Prison Reform Trust director, Peter Dawson has written to Jo Farrar, CEO of HM Prison and Probation Service and Second Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, to highlight the confusion surrounding plans to reform prison conditions.

The Daily Mail reported last month that a Ministry of Justice “source” expected a White Paper on prisons to be published later this year, and offered a simplistic and misleading summary of what might be learned from the experience of prisoners over the last 15 months.

In the letter, Peter Dawson writes:

“We are only too pleased to work closely with officials as policy is developed…and in particular to help the department hear from prisoners. But we are deeply suspicious of these constructive and candid conversations being presented as a sufficient process to inform a White Paper on prisons, especially when the press is being fed what appears to be advance notice of a policy decision to reduce the time prisoners will spend unlocked."

Planning for a future beyond the pandemic is an opportunity to reset policy on imprisonment and our prison system from first principles, but a project of this importance and scale demands wider scrutiny. The letter seeks assurance from Jo Farrar that “if there is to be a White Paper, it will be preceded by a full and transparent process of public consultation, based on clear proposals about which there is a genuine desire to listen and adjust if the arguments for doing so are persuasive”.

The evidence submitted to our CAPPTIVE project, and the findings of independent inspectors, have highlighted the significant toll on our prisons over the last 16 months. It is crucial that any plan for the future starts from the recognition that, despite the best efforts of prison managers and staff, our prison system has failed to an unprecedented degree to deliver humane or constructive custody during the pandemic. Any plan’s starting point must be that such a failure cannot be repeated.

The letter sets out key principles for future prison regimes, including:

  • an end to overcrowding and the enforced sharing of cells within a set time frame;
  • the permanent closure of prisons and parts of prisons that are no longer fit for purpose; and
  • the “principle of normality” in regime design, meaning that the prison day should be modelled on life outside prison. Specifically, people should be unlocked unless there is a good reason not to.

The letter also proposes that Governors should have the right not to accept a prisoner where they consider that their life may be at risk, and proposes a range of minimum standards to guarantee the delivery of government policies and commitments. It concludes with a number of practical recommendations, including:

  • the provision of in-cell telephony, controlled internet access and in-cell ICT across the prison estate;
  • privacy locks on all cell doors, so people can keep themselves and their property safe;
  • sufficient staffing resources to allow for prisoners to be unlocked for the equivalent of a normal day for an adult in the community—with sufficient paid work or education provision for a normal working week of 30 hours;
  • better pay to reduce prisoner debt; and
  • a significant increase in the provision of specialist mental health support.

The prison service has developed an expertise in making do with the inadequate physical and staffing resources which it receives, but the consequences of that approach have been exposed by the pandemic. The ambitions the government holds for a rehabilitative system cannot be delivered for as long as it fails to acknowledge the fundamental problems which only the politicians can solve.

Click here to download a copy of the letter.