This afternoon (15 September) the House of Commons will debate the Justice Committee's report into prison safety.
Ahead of the debate the Prison Reform Trust has published a briefing for MPs and interested parties. The briefing highlights the shocking state of safety within our prisons and poses a number of questions and solutions for the government to restore decency and order.
Click here to download the briefing and click here to watch the debate from 1:30pm.
Commenting on the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman's annual report published today, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:
"Reducing deaths used to be one of the success stories in our prisons. No longer. The situation has got dramatically worse and there are few signs of hope. Every part of the solution requires more time for staff—to build relationships, to train, to get the basics right. That means more staff or fewer prisoners—nothing less will do."
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.
Commenting on the government's announcement on tackling Islamic radicalisation in prisons, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:
"The review proposed small units for a very few prisoners—and as a temporary expedient, not a permanent regime. The goal must be to get people back into the main prison community, so that changes in their behaviour can be observed. Anything else is just storing up an even more difficult problem for when they are eventually released.
"Faith is overwhelmingly a constructive force within prisons and the prison Imams who undertake this most challenging role deserve the Government's complete support—they are part of the solution not the problem. Sensible, proportionate measures to deal with a small minority of extremist prisoners who seek to undermine that work are welcome. But they will all rely on adequate resourcing - better trained staff can only use new skills if prisoners are unlocked and engaging with them."
Peter appeared on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. You can listen to it by clicking here.
You can also read Peter's recent article in Counter Terror Business on how our justice system should respond to radicalisation by clicking here.