New chair in 30th anniversary year

A warm welcome and grateful thanks

The President of the Prison Reform Trust, Lord Hurd of Westwell, trustees and staff are delighted to announce the appointment of our new Chair, Lord Woolf of Barnes.  Lord Woolf was Master of the Rolls from 1996 to 2000 when he succeeded Lord Bingham of Cornhill as Lord Chief Justice, remaining in that role until 2005.  Lord Woolf has long been a staunch proponent of positive change in the justice system.  It is his report into the disturbances at Strangeways prison in 1990 that remains the touchstone for UK prison reform today.  We look forward to the benefit of his knowledge and insight in this 30th anniversary year and for years to come.

Dame Jo Williams DBE, who has been our Chair for two years, moves on from the Prison Reform Trust to devote her attention to her important new role as Chair of the Care Quality Commission.  Jo has been a tremendous champion for prison reform and we have greatly benefited from her energetic and incisive approach.  Her wealth of experience in social care has undoubtedly helped to formulate solutions to crime that lie outside the justice system.  We are immensely grateful.  We wish Jo every success at the Care Quality Commission, and greatly value her continued friendship and support.

Too many people are sent to prison for too long, and the conditions in which they are kept are often a disgrace.

This statement by former British Steel Chair Sir Monty Finniston, quoted in the Financial Times on 16 September 1981, marked the public launch 30 years ago of a new organisation aimed at changing the conversation about the UK’s penal system and bringing about reforms in policy and practice.

A distinguished group of citizens - including a retired High Court judge and a former Observer editor amongst others - came together to found a trust aimed at:

promoting the constructive treatment of offenders, educating the public about the penal system, and encouraging research.  

This was the birth of the Prison Reform Trust.

Archived newspaper clippings reveal how much and how little has changed in the intervening years.  Speaking at the press launch, PRT’s founding Chair Sir Monty said:

We have ... constructed a system which by isolating prisoners from their families and friends reduces to a minimum any opportunity for rehabilitation.  

Then, as now, prison overcrowding was a major problem.  The poor treatment of mentally ill prisoners also features in the coverage, as well as the need for greater openness and accountability in the system.  Headlines speak of the need for a ‘penal revolution’.

The Guardian’s report on the 1981 launch noted that the new pressure group had given itself ‘three years to achieve its aims’.  Thirty years on, PRT’s staff, trustees and hundreds of supporters continue to work closely with progressive thinkers, practitioners and policy-makers to achieve a just, humane and effective prison system.  We benefit greatly from the continued support of PRT’s first Deputy Chair, Dame Ruth Runciman DBE, and some of her Board colleagues who have been with the trust since its early years. 

Our work is informed by a combination of applied research and daily communication with prisoners contacting our advice and information service, through which we aim to convey the reality of prison life to Parliamentarians, decision makers and the public.  True to the first instincts of PRT’s founders, this year we are launching a programme that will reach out to new audiences across the UK, challenging widely-held misconceptions about the justice system and encouraging a better informed public debate. 

There have been some significant improvements in the UK prison system since PRT’s founding year.  These include the introduction of treatment for sex offenders, the transfer of responsibility for prisoners’ healthcare commissioning to the Department of Health, much better suicide prevention, the introduction of trained pastoral roles for prisoners such as Samaritan listeners and race reps (now equality and diversity reps) and improved alternatives to custody.  Most recently, PRT’s Out of Trouble campaign is contributing to a welcome reduction in child imprisonment.  However, the challenges remain considerable.  The overall prison population has doubled and, as our ongoing research and campaigns show - for example in relation to women prisoners, older people in prison and those with mental health problems and learning disabilities - progress in many areas is still far too slow. 

The Coalition Government’s promised ‘rehabilitation revolution’ offers perhaps the greatest opportunity for reform at any time since the Woolf report.  In the coming months we will work with others to make the most of that promise, while continuing to press for change in areas of resistance such as prisoners’ voting rights.  We are determined to play our part in ensuring that, in three years’ time – let alone 30 - we can all look back on a period of radical change for the better.