Then we had the Queens Speech, supposedly setting out the government's legislative programme and it turns out to be the non-event of the decade containing as it does uncontentious and inconsequential crap about a 'space station' and driver-less cars. All this of course in order to clear the decks for the referendum, cover the prime ministers arse and try and improve his legacy in the event of a vote for Brexit on June 23rd. Yet again no mention of a Bill of Rights, thus confirming that the government is in a state of total paralysis as the Tories scrap amongst themselves in an increasingly unedifying and acrimonious act of fratricide over Europe.
Although it's pretty clear that the government has been extremely busy doing absolutely nothing for months now, obviously they need to pretend that's not the case, hence the cunning plan for urgent prison reform was cooked-up some time ago. We had the prime minister kick things off with that astonishing speech and outburst of concern for a subject he'd previously shown little interest in and subsequently followed by a relentless MoJ-inspired flow of horror stories regarding the state of crisis developing in our prisons. This latter policy reached its zenith with the BBC being granted unprecedented access to HMP Wansdworth this week where we could all witness on live TV just how bad things are getting.
Now lets just ponder for a moment the degree of media manipulation that's going on here. Prisons are secretive places and the MoJ spends a great deal of time and effort tightly controlling any information about what's going on behind the walls. It's normally done in the name of 'security' but in reality it's as much about politics as anything else. Make no mistake about it, prisons have been in crisis for some time and the situation was pretty much orchestrated by Grayling and the previous Tory/coalition government. Remember 'Fair and Sustainable' and 'Benchmarking' that sought to cut prison officers and their conditions? There was a mass exodus of experienced staff - a bit like probation staff - the only difference being that prison officers went with enhanced retirement packages.
Grayling spent his entire tenure at the MoJ denying there was any 'crisis' in the prison system and successfully refused all access by journalists and even Frances Crook of the Howard League. Despite the denials, both seconded and visiting probation staff started reporting on this blog how they were beginning to feel unsafe due to reduced staffing levels and were describing how prisoners were having to miss education and programmes because there was no one to escort them. It was Grayling's pernicious policies in relation to books, parcels, clothing, Earned Privileges etc that all helped to stoke-up the current situation.
We now have a situation where it suits the government to have a distraction and smokescreen, so the MoJ has put the previous policy of denial into complete reverse. In order to make the case for urgent reform, suddenly there's frank admissions everywhere that things are really bad. On the BBC Andrew Marr show last week, Michael Gove was asked about the astonishingly frank statement by the new Chief Inspector of Prisons that some establishments were 'not fit for purpose'. His answer was 'yes'.
But contrast this with Grayling and his car crash of an interview with John Humphrys on the BBC Today programme on the eve of the Queen's Speech. Amongst other things, he denied there was a problem with prison over-crowding; that there'd ever been a book ban; that the problem was 'legal highs' and that Gove's prison reforms were merely building on his own successful reforms of probation with 55,000 released prisoners now getting support. It prompted this comment on twitter from a barrister:-
"God Chris Grayling is odious. A foul, mendacious, self-serving, amoral, intellectually-bereft embodiment of all wrong with politics"So, politics has dictated that the time is right for a big show at trying to sort out a crisis in our prisons, largely brought about by the very same Tories in power now and their cost-cutting policies. The answer lies in 'Reform Prisons' and turning them into 'profit centres' with governors supposedly having control over everything, or as much as the MoJ and Noms can be persuaded to cede to them. Gove has promised it won't lead to 'privatisation', but of course we all know the companies struggling to make any money out of the probation CRC contracts are in the wings lobbying to offer their 'innovative' solutions to the prison system.
Will it work? No of course not because it won't reduce the numbers going to prison. It's basically a political stunt - a distraction. Here's Richard Garside writing on the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies website:-
Reform prisons a tragic distraction
Given the parlous state of prisons across England and Wales, a reform-minded Justice Minister like Michael Gove has ample opportunity to make his mark. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, told the BBC earlier this week that some prisons were 'not fit for purpose' and were failing to keep prisoners safe. The BBC revealed that the emergency services were called out more than 26,600 times – or every 20 minutes on average – to incidents in UK prisons last year. A House of Commons Justice Committee report, also out this week, found there had been 100 suicides in prison in the twelve months to March 2016, up from 79 the previous year. To put this in perspective, there were 37 suicides in prison in 1988; 16 in 1978. Assaults and self-harm in prisons are also on the rise.
The Ministry of Justice had hoped 'that prison safety would stabilise', the Conservative Chair of the Committee Bob Neill, said. 'In reality it has deteriorated further and continues to do so. This is a matter of great concern and improvement is urgently needed... This cannot wait'. So there is more than enough for Michael Gove to do to sort out the system-wide problems in prison. Which is why today's announcement of six 'reform prisons' is such a tragic distraction from the big challenges of prison reform.
The proposition that reform-minded prison governors should have greater autonomy from what can be experienced as a stifling head office bureaucracy has a superficial appeal. But behind this lurks a multitude of problems. The six reform prisons amount to a mere five percent of the current total of 121 prisons. If the reform prisons are successful on their own terms, the result will be half a dozen oases of progress, lost in a desert of deeply dysfunctional institutions.
The reform prisons proposal is by no stretch of the imagination a serious response to the deep problems affecting the prison system. It is an eye-catching, small-scale experiment that will form the backdrop for shiny ministerial photo-opportunities while doing nothing to address the underlying malaise. That said, every effort will be made to drive through the reform prison model, at the expense of the wider estate. As today's press release makes clear, the planned nine new-build prisons will also operate on a reform prison model.
The reform prisons are therefore something of a 'proof of concept' experiment, and the shape of things to come across the prison estate. The proposals for greater governor autonomy also raise major questions. Consider this, from today's press release:
'These prisons will give unprecedented freedoms to prison governors, including financial and legal freedoms, such as how the prison budget is spent and whether to opt-out of national contracts; and operational freedoms over education, the prison regime, family visits, and partnerships to provide prison work and rehabilitation services.'What does it mean for a governor to have 'operational freedoms' over education, or over family visits? Will it be Ipads and advanced IT skills training, or rote learning and spelling tests? Will it lead to greater family contact, less contact, or 'innovative' approaches that replace human contact with a video conference? Innovation and greater discretion at an individual institution level, in the absence of national standards and a coherent, estate-wide approach, can easily collapse into the merely idiosyncratic.
Reform prisons, the press release states, will also be established as 'independent legal entities with the power to enter into contracts; generate and retain income; and establish their own boards.' The idea that prisons should be income-generating entities is hardly a new one. Private prisons have for some years been part of the prison system. But the implication that reform prisons should operate as competitive, risk-taking outfits, pursuing exciting business opportunities to make up for a shortfall in Central government funding is profoundly wrongheaded.
What should the basis of a coherent programme of prison reform? First, and of critical importance, we need a sustained effort to reduce the currently high prison population. This was a point made only last week by Bob Neill, the former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, and the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Lord Ramsbotham. Indeed, Bob Neill told the BBC that 'we should be looking to start reducing the prison population straight away'.
Michael Gove has recently emphasised that the government does not intend to use an 'artificial target' to manage down the prison population. We should be clear that the population has been artificially managed up, over a number of years, by successive administrations. The level of imprisonment in this, and any other country, is in good part a political choice. If we imprisoned today at the rate we imprisoned in the mid-1980s, when Mrs Thatcher was in Downing Street, there would be at least 30,000 fewer people in prison.
The prison system also badly needs institutional stability and action to ground prison regimes in decency and respect: for staff, prisoners, families and visitors. The awful recent case of Shalane Blackwood, who died in prison last year from a burst duodenal ulcer, following neglect by prison staff, is just one example of how far the prison system is from this goal.
So there is much to do on prison reform, to deliver a legacy that any Justice Minister could rightly be proud of. It would also be a hard job to pull off, and a politically controversial programme of reform. The Prime Minister and current Justice Secretary no doubt understand this well. Which is perhaps why they prefer to play at being prison reformers, rather than doing the hard work involved in being prison reformers.