Reforming our prisons

16/11/2015 11:54:00

“Prison is a place where people are sent as a punishment, not for further punishments...Human beings whose lives have been reckoned so far in costs—to society, to the criminal justice system, to victims and to themselves—can become assets—citizens who can contribute and demonstrate the human capacity for redemption.”

These were the words of the incoming Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, in July this year. For Friends, and others with a longstanding commitment to prison reform, this was a welcome reassertion of the principles which should underpin any civilised penal system. So far so good. However, the Justice Secretary has inherited a system that is deteriorating both on internal and external measures, and a requirement to carve anything from 25% to 40% out of its budget over the next five years.

Violence and disorder have risen sharply to their highest ever recorded level. Suicide and self-harm continue to rise. Reductions achieved through painstaking effort in the previous decade have been reversed. Last year levels of purposeful activity were judged unacceptable in three-quarters of prisons inspected.

Longstanding flaws and inequalities remain. More than a quarter of prisoners live in overcrowded prisons. One in four of the country’s prisoners comes from an ethnic minority—compared to one in 10 of the general population. 82% of women are in prison for non-violent offences. The population of prisoners aged over 60 has tripled. 20% to 30% of prisoners have a learning disability or difficulty that interferes with their ability just to understand the criminal justice system. A staggering 12,000 prisoners are serving life or indeterminate terms. Many are held beyond tariff and do not even know when they will be released.

A better, more humane response to people with mental health needs or learning disabilities caught up in the justice system should be a priority. Liaison and diversion services with nurses in police stations and courts now cover over half of England, and a full national scheme is expected to be announced in the autumn, subject to Treasury approval. A courageous mother of a young man suffering from schizophrenia who took his own life while in custody said:

My son did not cope well with prison.  Care for the mentally ill should be therapeutic and in surroundings conducive to peace and recovery – not the barred, noisy, stressful and gardenless prison.  Those of you who have visited prisons will be aware of how unpleasant and entirely unsuitable a place they are for people who are mentally ill. 

In a letter I received after his death, my son wrote ‘you must understand that one of my beliefs, at a deep level, is that the world is a dangerous and malevolent place – this is common with my illness.  As a result, I do assume that everyone is out to get me... You can see that I am in a terrible situation, segregated, hated by the entire jail it seems and not knowing what will happen next...  I hate this kind of life and I have considered actual suicide.  I am by myself and the cell is cold.”

We resort to imprisonment far more readily than anywhere else in Western Europe. In England and Wales we imprison 148 people in 100,000 compared, for example, with 100 in France and 78, per 100,000 people in Germany. Other European countries can tell us much more about a sparing use of imprisonment. Current and former prisoners, prisoners’ families, prison staff, visitors, chaplains and independent monitors, have informed views on what needs to change. Yet their voices are rarely heard. Government would be wise to check its justice reform programme to learn from other countries and to listen to, and draw on, the experience of people within the system.

Economic imperatives and pressure on the Ministry of Justice, an unprotected department, represents an opportunity to rethink our approach - both to the use of imprisonment and to the experience it should represent. We will not solve the problems of imprisonment by looking within prison alone. Solutions do not all lie behind prison walls - whether Victorian or newly built. Instead they lie largely within communities, public health, safe housing, education, skills and work, and within families. If we are to re-imagine imprisonment, we must reintegrate prison back into communities. We must make prison smaller – smaller in our minds, and smaller in number and capacity.

A quiet success story offers hope. The number of children (under-18s) in custody has fallen by over two-thirds in the last seven years. Yet at the same time, the crime committed by children has plummeted, with proven offences down by 72% from their peak in 2005–06. The number of young adults (18-20 year olds) sent to prison has also started to decline, as the conveyor belt from child offender to young adult prisoner has slowed. If we translate that determination to make imprisoning children genuinely a last resort into the adult sphere, and reverse the sentence inflation which accounts for two-thirds of the population growth of the last two decades, the possibility of making dramatic savings is real. A prison population at the level it was the last time there was a Conservative majority government would save its current successor around £1bn a year.

Increasing sentence lengths has been a comfort blanket for every government of the last 20 years. To make matters worse, prison is still seen as a free good so far as local communities are concerned—the trade off between money spent on prison officers rather than nurses or teachers remains invisible to the local taxpayer. The uncomfortable truth is that most of that expensive additional prison time is both unnecessary and wasted leading to frustration, depression,  idleness and long, pointless, hours behind cell doors.

The Justice Secretary’s commitment to better conditions and more effective rehabilitation is welcome. Many of our prisons need to be shut down. But prison reform is about more than replacing old buildings.  The crisis he faces now is with prisons that have deteriorated sharply as budgets have been slashed and staff numbers cut. Pressure on the system has to be relieved by revising the sentencing framework, curbing ever lengthening sentence lengths and mandatory penalties, dealing with the dragnet of indeterminate sentences and the use of joint enterprise, getting a grip on unnecessary use of remand and recall, and dealing case by case with the forgotten thousands of prisoners still held long beyond terms set by courts as well as investing in diverting addicts and people with mental health needs into treatment.

Winston Churchill’s seminal speech in Parliament in 1910 is a lode star for Michael Gove’s developing reform programme. He often cites Churchill’s reference to “an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man.” Less quoted, but nonetheless of significance here, Churchill concluded with a salutary warning:

“…when the doctors, chaplains and prison visitors have come and gone, the convict stands deprived of everything that a free man calls life. We must not forget that all these improvements, which are sometimes salves to our consciences, do not change that position”.

Loss of liberty is the most serious punishment that can be levied by the UK courts. Notwithstanding any improvements that can, and must, be effected in prison treatment and conditions, we should never underestimate the impact of that loss of liberty and the enduring shadow it leaves long after release. The only way to reform prison is to put it where it belongs - at the far end of a fair and proportionate justice system as a place of absolute last resort.