The prison service has “regressed” in its efforts to tackle racial inequality, a leading expert on equality and diversity in the criminal justice system has warned.

Writing in the latest edition of the Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley Briefing Prison Factfile, Beverley Thompson OBE, a former senior civil servant and Race Equality Advisor (2004 – 2009) at HM Prison Service, says that “many in the prison service have either lost commitment and direction from their leadership or their organisational expertise and energy is depleted—seeking comfort instead from the dangerous mantra that ‘race has been done’.”

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Commenting on HM Inspectorate of Prisons annual report on children’s experiences in custody, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“This damning report describes conditions for imprisoned children that predate the pandemic. It shows a third of children not able to shower once a day. Most of these teenagers couldn’t even play sport once a week. More than two out of every five had been bullied. And in a system where over half come from an ethnic minority, the colour of your skin led to an even worse experience across almost every aspect of daily life inside.

But despite these shameful facts, the government has published a white paper which will reverse the steady decline in the number of children we imprison, and which accepts that its proposals will have a disproportionate impact on children of colour. Parliament should refuse to countenance such an appalling prospect.”

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Commenting on today’s (29 January) funding announcement by the Ministry of Justice, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:  

“These announcements are all welcome, and put some meat on the bone of the government’s commitment to reducing reoffending. A place to live and the means to earn your living are both crucial to giving people a fair chance when they leave prison. To achieve the impact the government wants, it will be essential that these modest commitments turn into a permanent, national investment in community based solutions to crime. The public are best protected when people get help long before there is any possibility of a prison sentence.  

The amounts of money involved in these welcome announcements are still dwarfed by the £4bn the government is planning to spend on new prisons because of its continuing love affair with imprisonment. And they sit oddly with last weekend’s quiet announcement that 500 new prison places are to be provided for women, marking the apparent failure of a clear existing policy to reduce women’s imprisonment. There is a long way still to travel to achieve a rational, evidence based approach to reducing reoffending.”

Peter has also written about this issue for The i Paper, click here to read the article.

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Commenting on today’s (23 January) funding announcement by the Ministry of Justice, Emily Evison, policy officer at the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“Reducing the women’s prison population is a central plank of the government’s female offenders strategy. Even a temporary rise in women’s prison numbers will be a mark of failure. Instead of planning for a rise, the government should redouble its efforts to ensure women are not being sent to prison to serve pointless short sentences. The national concordat provides a welcome framework for cross-government working to improve outcomes for women. However, it will need backing by action on the ground to ensure the effective coordination of services. The additional funding is welcome as far as it goes but doesn’t end the need for more sustainable funding of women’s services in the long term.”

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Commenting on the findings of today’s (20 January) thematic report on outcomes for young adult prisoners by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“The government is in a complete muddle about how to deal with young people who commit serious crime. On the one hand, it is determined to sentence even more young people—disproportionately young black men—to ever longer periods in prison. But then it fails utterly to make provision which might do anything to allow them to escape the situation which their lack of maturity has created in the first place.

“This is what comes from an overcrowded, under-resourced prison system. Governments are quick to legislate for harsher punishments. But they then condemn these young people at a critical moment in their lives to a system which is dominated by the pressure of simply finding enough spaces for people to be locked up. Strategic planning for the prison estate and for what goes on inside it is repeatedly blown out of the water by political expedience.

“There is no excuse for the situation the Chief Inspector describes. Far from protecting the public through imprisonment, the government is storing up a worse problem for the future. Young and disproportionately black young people are being denied a fair chance of building a decent future and growing out of crime.”

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We have today written to the prisons minister requesting more information about PAVA use in prisons. As we reported last year, we gave expert evidence in support of litigation brought by an individual prisoner and also supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This produced some important outcomes putting on record commitments from the ministry. Our letter to the minister asks for evidence that those commitments are now being met. But it also repeats the request for other data which will allow for proper external scrutiny, and makes proposals to strengthen the central and local governance of use of force more generally.

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Prison Reform Trust director, Peter Dawson, has written to the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland following today's article in the Daily Telegraph on the Parole Board.

Click here to read the letter.

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The government did not seek responses to its white paper, A Smarter Approach to Sentencing, published in September 2020. But we understand that a bill implementing some of its proposals may well be tabled early in 2021.

In response we have prepared an analysis of those elements of the paper in which PRT has significant knowledge and interest. We hope this will assist others who share both our concerns and our hopes for different elements of the white paper’s approach, and inform parliamentary scrutiny of any bill that results from it.

While there is plenty in the white paper to welcome, much of it repeats the very worst errors of other governments over the last two decades in relation to sentencing. As the analysis points out, the incoherence and cruelty of proposals concerning those convicted of serious offences cannot be offset or excused by the more considered measures aimed at those convicted of less serious crime.

Given the challenges the country faces, it seems extraordinary that a bill to implement such an unevidenced and confused White Paper should command any priority in the new year. But if it does, parliament must subject it to the detailed scrutiny and challenge it plainly needs and which the absence of consultation in its preparation has prevented.

Click here to download a copy of the briefing.

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The Prison Reform Trust provided expert evidence to an Equality and Human Rights Commission funded case, challenging the Secretary of State for Justice’s decision to make PAVA spray available in prisons during the coronavirus pandemic, before agreed safeguards were in place. 

The EHRC has now published a summary of the case, and as it points out, there are some important outcomes from it. The fact that the commitments the prison service have made are public and will produce more information that we and others can scrutinise are both important, as is the EHRC’s continuing interest in making sure the commitments are met.

We will publish a more detailed piece in the new year about the litigation, the questions that remain and the way we intend to maintain a close scrutiny of PAVA and its impact in future.

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Commenting on the publication of today’s (18 December) joint inspection report by Ofsted, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, and the Care Quality Commission, on conditions at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre (STC), Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“The new Chief Inspector of Prisons is right to be astonished that management at Rainsbrook STC did not put right the shortcomings laid bare by a highly critical inspection earlier in the year. The challenges posed by the pandemic cannot excuse the prolonged solitary confinement of children, nor the fact that this appeared to need a further inspection to be brought to light.”

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