August is a good time to take over, with new ministers away and a little time to take stock. But the autumn promises to be very busy as what is effectively a new government decides its priorities and works out what it can afford. We need to make sure that prison reform stays amongst those priorities. There have been encouraging signs from the new Secretary of State for Justice, Liz Truss, that it will and that she understands how reform absolutely requires safety in prisons as its foundation. It’s also encouraging to hear Theresa May choosing to highlight the unequal treatment of young black men in the criminal justice system in her very first public statement as Prime Minister.
A lot of people have been asking me what my vision is for PRT—including the charity’s trustees when they selected me for this role. The truth is that I have a vision for prisons rather than for PRT. It rests on PRT’s two very long standing objectives—to reduce the unnecessary use of imprisonment and to improve conditions for prisoners and their families. When I was preparing to train as a governor after a career in Whitehall, the then Director General of the prison service told me that it was important to spend three months as an officer on the landings “to understand the full awfulness of prison”. He was right, and the only certain way to reduce the waste and misery of imprisonment is to use it less. But at the same time we should be hugely more ambitious as a country about what we expect life in prison to be like and the opportunity it gives to people never to return there.
Fundamentally, the best test for what prison should be like is that it should be normal. The question should always be, “is there any reason why this needs to be different from what life is like in the community?” That applies to rights and entitlements—like good healthcare, the opportunity to develop skills, to have a say over the things that affect you. But it also applies to responsibilities—to contribute to the community of which you are part while in prison, to be a good parent, son or daughter, to make amends for the harm you have caused.
So my vision for imprisonment is that we should see it for what it is for the vast majority of prisoners—a temporary interruption to their life in a community to which they will return. As fellow citizens, we should expect that experience to be intense and full of purpose, fundamentally connected to the world outside prison and governed by the rights and responsibilities it confers on all of us.