Sunday, 22 May 2016

Perspectives on Prison Reform

I suspect prison reform is going to be topical for some time and to be honest it's quite refreshing to see the subject being examined intelligently for once. The trouble is though that when the penny finally drops that any improvement will have to involve sentencing reform, normal hysterical service in the tabloids will resume. Thankfully until that point we can at least rely on the Guardian to talk sense, as in this extract from an editorial in today's sister paper the Observer and which even mentions the probation service:-

The Observer view on prison reform

There has long been strong evidence that suspended and community sentences are both vastly cheaper and more effective in rehabilitating low-risk offenders. Yet ministers from all parties have failed to reform sentencing for fear of looking soft on crime. Kenneth Clarke was the first justice secretary to pledge to cut prison numbers in 2010, but after being attacked by some in the press for being “soft on the causes of crime” was swiftly moved out of post.

The government’s proposals for prison reform, announced in last week’s Queen’s Speech, mark a break from the past. Governors of six “reform prisons” will be given new freedoms over budgets and the running of their prisons. There will be a greater emphasis on life after prison, with improvements to the shockingly bad existing education provision found in most prisons described on these pages by Peter Stanford, and prisoners will be able to access the internet to support independent learning and contact with families. Prisons will be held accountable through league tables that compare reoffending rates, literacy levels and employment outcomes for prisoners who have been released.

There is much here to be welcomed. But there are also significant risks to the government’s stated objective of improving outcomes for offenders once they are released.

Justice secretary Michael Gove has drawn inspiration for his “reform prisons” from his expansion of academy schools while he was at the education department. But are we really to believe ministers will allow prison governors to take risks with their new freedoms, given how risk-averse they have been in this area in the past? And, even more importantly, is it really prison governors’ lack of freedom that is the main factor in preventing prisons from playing a rehabilitory role? The most immediate problem facing the prison system is overcrowding. Many prisons are now operating at more than 150% of capacity. The prisonsbudget has been cut by a quarter since 2010, and the number of prison officers has fallen by a third, with many of the most experienced officers taking redundancy in recent years. This has resulted in intolerable conditions in many of our prisons: violence and drug dealing are rife; suicides are at their highest rate in years; and one in five prisoners in prisons inspected last year said they spent at least 22 hours a day locked in their cells. Overcrowding will stymie any attempt at progressive reform.

The key to reducing overcrowding is sentencing reform. A significant proportion of prisoners is made up of people churning in and out of prison for those short sentences that are so ineffective and expensive. As the Howard League for Penal Reform has argued, we should stop handing out custodial sentences of less than a year: if a crime is not serious enough to merit a prison sentence of longer than a year, offenders should as a default be receiving community sentences. But sentencing reform is conspicuously absent from the government’s agenda. Gove has denied overcrowding is a problem, or that it would be a good thing to reduce the overall prisoner numbers.

A high quality, innovative probation service is also critical to prison reform because of its role in overseeing community sentencing and supporting the reintegration of prisoners into the community. But Chris Grayling, Gove’s predecessor, decided to apply the approach he previously took with the Work Programme to the probation service. As a result, probation services have been contracted out, mainly to private companies like Sodexo, who have promised to deliver more for less. This has happened despite the serious concerns raised by many, including the Public Accounts Committee. One year in, the National Audit Office has noted the reforms risk hindering the development of innovative approaches to tackling reoffending.

The prime minister clearly sees prison reform as central to the social legacy he wants to be remembered for. Yet prisons and probation are fundamentally end-of-the-road services. They cater for the symptoms of societal dysfunction and disadvantage that should have been tackled much earlier. Yes, we need a prison and probation service that is more effective at preventing reoffending: but there should be at least as much focus on preventing the social causes of crime in the first place.

On this, the government is failing measurably. Even while it claims to be concerned with improving children’s life chances, the poorest councils have faced the sharpest cuts, affecting vital services such as children’s centres, special educational needs and child mental health services. It has cut in-work benefits for families with children, while delivering an expensive, across-the-board tax cut that most benefits the affluent.

The government deserves credit for recognising, at long last, that prison doesn’t work. But reforming prisons, while a worthy task, will not by itself end the cycle of disadvantage so many children are born into.


A prison governor puts the present crisis into context in the Guardian:-

Gove's prison reform cannot undo the harm already inflicted by cuts

Earlier this month, Michael Gove addressed prison governors and admitted that the most recent figures for deaths in custody and violence in prisons were terrible.

This chimed with the Justice Committee’s report into prison safety published four days later. In this report the committee examined the government’s response to the ongoing and rapid deterioration in prison safety in England and Wales that began in 2012.

Gove, in his speech, went on to say that there is no point trying to minimise, excuse or divert attention away from the increasing problems we face. Unfortunately, the grim statistics he presented only tell part of the story. He was correct when he said that there were 100 self-inflicted deaths in custody, up from 79 the year before and he was also correct when he said assaults on staff were up by 36% to 4,963 and that there has been an increase of 25% in incidents of self-harm.

But as bad as these figures are Gove still managed gloss over the reality of the situation. To understand the true state of the decline in decency and the increase in the awful conditions prison officers and governors are working in, Gove should have gone back three years, not 12 months.

In the 12 months leading up to March 2013 there were 52 self-inflicted deaths in custody, three years later there were 100 – an increase of 92%. In 2012 there were 23,158 incidents of self-harm and three years later there were 32,313 – an increase of 39%. The number of serious assaults in the same period was approximately 1,200 and three years later it was 2,813 – an increase of approximately 130%. Almost every statistical graph the Ministry of Justice produces in this area shows a slight variation in serious incidents of harm or deaths in the nine years before 2012 then an alarming shift upwards.

So what happened in 2012 that might explain the reason for this shift? Between 2010-11 and 2014-15 the National Offender Management Service (Noms) made cumulative savings of almost £1bn and the savings made in public sector prisons were £334m.

A large chunk of these savings was made by shedding staff while the prison population continued to grow. This was achieved with the implementation of a prison benchmark applied across the service, which changed prison regimes and dictated both the grades and numbers of prison staff. In order to get the staff out as quickly as possible, Noms offered them severance payments to leave. This resulted in the loss of experienced staff and, when staffing levels fell below what was required, Noms was unable to recruit replacements quickly enough – even offering those they had paid to leave the opportunity to return.

On top of that the new staff coming in did not have the experience of those they were replacing and many simply left under the pressure adding to the recruitment problems. The impact of these changes were seen in 2012, when the changes were being phased into prisons. The statistics provide good evidence of what happened – prisons were cheaper to run, but this came at a cost.

The government wants to give governors more autonomy and this will be achieved with the prison reform programme referenced in the Queen’s speech. This is what prison governors have been crying out for; but not at any cost. The early adopter prisons are all very different and have their own unique challenges, ranging from local issues such as staffing turnover to the age of the prison buildings and cost of maintenance.

When giving governors autonomy the government must re-invest what it has stripped out in the past five years. Prison reform will inevitably bring some immediate improvements with the long overdue abolition of the all-pervasive public managerialism that has infected the service. Governors are, however, starting from a much lower position than they were before austerity deprived them of resources. The changes made to prisons to cut running costs cannot simply be reversed at the stroke of a pen: they will take many months, maybe years, to turn around. Centralisation of contracts, procurement processes, budgetary controls, recruitment, and the management of education was introduced to initiate savings and cannot be instantly jettisoned. In order to understand the enormity of the challenge ahead it is necessary to appreciate where we really are now.

Gove acknowledges that a radical reform programme will take years to implement before it begins to yield the positive difference governors are capable of delivering. I hope that this is not simply rhetoric and that governors really will be given enough time, and resources, to rehabilitate prisoners and make society a safer place. Governors, without the imposition of centrally-driven diktats, are capable of so much more than they are currently allowed to demonstrate. Gove states that only when our prisons are places of calm stability and order can we make the difference we need to. That is probably true but in order to achieve that we must recognise that the prison population is overcrowded and the cuts went too far. We are all now paying the price.

John Attard is national officer, Prison Governors’ Association


Finally, here's an academic writing on the Left Foot Forward website and highlighting the need to look at wider social structures:- 

Gove’s prison reform plan blames individuals and ignores structures

The Justice Committee have just published a grim report on prison safety, yet another catalogue of concerns about the decline in safety and the rising tide of violence in Prisons in England and Wales. Statistics attest to rising rates of self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and violent assaults in prisons. It concludes by suggesting that the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service must produce an action plan for improvement.

None of this comes as a shock for anyone who has contact with prisons and prisoners in England and Wales. While the call for an action plan will no doubt be welcomed by a number of individuals, before the Queen’s Speech it seems safe to suggest that the Ministry of Justice already has one. The justice minister, Michael Gove is committed to reform, but few seem to have picked up on the ideas driving his plan.

In July 2015, Gove was photographed leaving hospital after injuring his foot with a with a copy of right wing American academic John DiIulio’s book Governing Prisons (published during the American carceral boom of the 1980s) under his arm. Diullio argued that the violence occurring in the most troublesome prisons in the US was not due to overcrowding, poor training or shortage of staff, explanations like those on the Justice Select committee have offered for the turmoil in prisons. Instead he averred that prison violence was merely a matter of a failure of prison managers to impose an appropriate social regime.

Gove’s plan to give greater power to prison managers suggests a similar mentality — by holding individuals to account for successes and failures, he believes we can have a better, less violent prison system. While such a view doesn’t reflect the wide range of factors believed to be contributing to problems in prisons, it is likely that it is these ideas will support the core legislative elements that will be revealed in the Queen’s Speech.

Yet moving forward, it is worth remembering that not all prisons are violent and dangerous places. Indeed most of the problems with violence, suicide, self-harm and disorder are being encountered in a minority of jails. Some prisons witness quite low levels of violence, for example, those institutions that hold sex offenders (a population which tends to be older) see far less violence, disorder and self-harm. Others have greater problems. Prison management and leadership is likely to be a factor, but the rise in violence may be deeper rooted still.

The reasons for the rise in violence and suicide have been much debated. Prison staff and prisoners alike know well that the influx of new psychoactive substances (sometimes daubed legal highs), have had a significant impact on the working of the prison sub rosa economy, and debt and indebtedness is a driver for much prison violence (and always has been).

So too the decline in safety has variously been attributed to a more challenging mix of prisoners, and a higher than anticipated prison population, at a time when staffing numbers had been reduced quite drastically and budgets have been cut severely as part of a drive for austerity (of course prisons are an easy place for the financial axe to fall because prisoners elicit so little public sympathy). All this suggests that there are a number of factors that taken together can influence violence, a point which is seemingly at odds with Diullio’s central contention.

While it is undeniable that significant number of prisons had been operating at staffing levels below what was necessary to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes, it is also undeniable that outside the prison walls, society has changed and its current ethos is one that blames individuals for failure, not social systems. This is the essence of Diullio’s argument, forget the social, blame the individual. Such is the doxa of contemporary neoliberal society.

Neoliberalism, an ideology and concept usually associated with a ruthless brand of free-market economics now dominant in the UK and US, has now penetrated the very core services of the state and its institutions. These were once considered strictly off limits to financial speculators and entrepreneurs, yet the NHS, social services, the police, the prison system and the criminal justice system now feel its full weight.

At the level of the everyday, this neoliberalism ideology is tied to consumer society, where instant gratification is achieved predominantly through various forms of conspicuous consumption in highly stylised lifestyle markets. If an individual fails against this backdrop and context, it is because they cannot generate the capital to consume. If they fail, it is because of their own individual faults. Yet the essence of neoliberal consumerism is also the permission to forget others, to look after number one, to be nakedly self-interested and selfish.

In prison, status hierarchy has a consumerist imperative as well as a machismo hierarchy where acquisition and display are regarded as important markers of distinction are all much in evidence. Those with violent potential exploit these social rules ruthlessly to take advantage of those they see as weaker. If you get into debt in prison, a system of interest charging called ‘double bubble’ (which makes the interest rates of unscrupulous payday loan lenders look reasonable) ‘kicks in’ and if your debts are not repaid, your head may well be too.

Many prisoners would instantly accept Diullio’s argument. Being fully signed up to the neoliberal ideal, they are quite happy with the way a dog-eat-dog social system works. But the neoliberal move from traditional forms of capital, community and politics to a globalised economy built on unstable labour markets and consumerism that has been the backdrop that many of them have grown up against is not an individual project, but a social one that has moved the social out of the picture.

If prisons are failing, like a lot of our social institutions, then we need to stop thinking of that failure as a failure of individuals, and think again about the bigger social picture.

James Treadwell is a criminologist at Birmingham City University


  1. This is exactly what needs to be avoided in the current wave of CRC Cuts, up to 40%. Voluntary redundancies likely to be taken by the more experienced members of staff thus leaving less experienced with no one to learn from, possibly resulting in greater loss of staff and difficulty recruiting. I hope working links etc. Are taking note of this! What has been allowed to occur in the prisons is shocking malpractice and people have died as a result. I believe this will eventually result in a national enquiry and large scale compensation for all those concerned. It is a ticking time the meantime the government is destroying what should be a genuine alternative to custody. Probation! Doesn't make any sense whatsoever!

  2. Probation Officer22 May 2016 at 10:44

    I've said it before, change the ethos from punishment to rehabilitation and put a Probation Officer in charge of NOMS. Even better, second a few to be prison governors and hunt out the ones that are also ex-offenders. We're all civil servants now so second a few to head the Ministry of Justice too, and I mean at the top not silly policy jobs nobody takes notice of. And I mean a good few frontline qualified probation officers known for innovation, not PSO's, not PO those managerial types that became managers because they didn't like offenders or weren't good at the day job, and not those Judas' previously employed as Probation Chiefs that retired and keep popping up, or the other ones currently employed as NPS/CRC directors.

    1. Erm... we're not all civil servants now...

    2. Therein is the proof that Grayling & his NOMS lieutenants won their war: "We're all civil servants now..."

      As Anon@17:55 rightly says, we are not all civil servants. The poor souls cast upon the mercy of CRC owners are not civil servants, in fact many have been cast out and are no longer probation practitioners, or are at imminent risk of being jettisoned overboard by the greed-mongers.

      Neither Gove nor Spurr would entertain employing anyone other than an 'on message' taskmaster. Once the eurofarce is done & dusted Gove will either walk or tighten the reins, depending on the final scale of the Tory schism.

      And when one considers the senior Labour rats leaving what they consider to be a sinking ship - Sadiq has decamped to his Mayoral palace and Burnham will follow suit in Manchester if he's lucky - the future's looking bleak if there's no-one left to rein in Tory lunacy...

      ... Imagine: out of Europe & no meaningful Labour Party. That leaves a right wing bunch of crazies with no checks & balances probably led by one of the following after Cameron & Osbourne bale out: May, Johnson or Gove. My blood is freezing at the thought.

    3. If you work for the NPS you're a civil servant. If you work for a CRC you're ultimately employed by a private company.

    4. In the interest of balance, in my 19:42 post I should perhaps also have considered remaining in Euroland & the joys of Iggle Piggle & Pinnochio continuing in office until 2020 whereby I suspect they'll give considerable concessions to The Brexiteers in order to keep the fractured Tory party together.

  3. Because of the prison crisis and conditions nobody wants to work there, and with the poor pay too, they'll never get the staff. Will be the same for probation, all the staff are being let go and the attack on probation officer training means after all the current trainees have qualified they'll be at least a 2-3 year gap until new staff are qualified. I can see an change for sone time and it's set to get worse before it gets better.

  4. I don't suppose that many people listened to "Bye Bye Bad Girls" on BBC radio Wales 12:30 Sundays. The first episode was about the harm caused about the harm caused to Welsh Women by imprisoning them in England. This government ignored the Corston Report, it had the opportunity to build a female prison on the Firestone site in Wrexham, choosing to build a super max male prison for low cost warehousing of males, ignoring the economics that returning people to society from prison to re-offend is vastly more expensive than helping them rehabilitate, more easily accomplished in the smaller prisons.

    The first episode the presenter found that a visit from her home in Swansea to Eastwood Park in Gloucestershire would cost about a £100, a lot for a one hour visit.

    All of the interviewees expressed that not having visits was a mental depressant and social contact was lost.

    A lady from North Wales served her sentence in Low Newton (Durham) a good 250 miles from her family. She told of a visit by her disabled mother, change trains 3 times. On a return trip a station lift was inoperative so she could not change platforms, she was diverted to another station resulting in the visit taking 19 hours. Understandably after that she got someone to drive her, stay B and B return the next day, that has got to be a £200 visit.

    My Reforms.

    Firstly "Zero Tolerance" has failed admit it. I do not advocate the use of Marijuana its a waste of time, but it's probably less harmful than alcohol certainly not as addictive. Zero Tolerance has driven Marijuana out of prisons too easily detected, to be replaced by much more harmful substances. If you ask a Dutch Policeman, he will tell you that controlling a crowd of people who have been smoking Marijuana is easy compared to a crowd of drunks, so a prisoner who is stoned is not much of a problem for the prison. If prisons stopped looking for Marijuana, it could replace more harmful drugs, a blind eye approach.

    Mobile phones. Prison phone calls are extremely expensive £1 a minute to Australia compared to 1p a minute on skype or similar. Cheap and Easy phone calls should reduce demand for mobile phones.

    Weekend leave. Other countries release prisoners who can be trusted to return and can afford it, leave for the weekend. This leads to a better ratio of staff/residence at the weekend some chance of useful activity. A lock down is just another waste of time. The weekend leave improves the chance of a successful reintegration.

    Zero cost options!

    1. Or just stop sending so many people to prison as there are alternatives!