One small step for prison reform

July 12, 2018

This week the Justice Secretary outlined plans to make prisons safer, disrupt criminality within the estate and promote rehabilitation. He announced a £30 million package of new initiatives  including a digital analysis tool to identify those likely to be most dangerous;  better scanners to improve searching; and, in-cell telephones to incentivise good behaviour by giving inmates more contact with their families. The question is – will it work?

The task of turning round prisons is significant. On the same day the Justice Secretary made his announcement, the dire condition of the estate was reported by Peter Clarke, HM Inspector of Prisons. The picture is one of violence increasing, hygiene in decline, reoffending rates stubbornly high and drugs readily available. As the report says plainly, ‘Prisons are still becoming less safe. Improvement has yet to materialise’.

Beyond the yearly snapshot from the Inspectorate the facts are more daunting still. Over the last few years assaults on staff have increased by nearly 90%. Despite some recent improvement, self-inflicted deaths are at historically high levels. The prison population has risen by over 80 per cent in 30 years and now stands at over 85,000 – bigger than Burnley or Guildford.

Given the scale of the challenge, the latest initiatives are unlikely to be the last word on this subject. Prison officer numbers are being increased, after years of cuts to staff numbers.  With, however, a predicted 40 per cent reduction in the Ministry of Justice budget between 2011 and 2020, much more serious and imaginative work will be required.

So what else should be considered? Changing behaviour can be a difficult task – especially if someone is using drugs, fears for their life or has the reading age of 7 years old (half of prisoners are functionally illiterate) – worse if they suffer all three.  Yet it can be done.

Lessons from community sentences in the US, know as ‘swift and certain’, show that when offenders face the consequences for their actions soon after the infraction, they are less likely to reoffend. Importantly, the consequences must by predictable – arbitrary responses encourage risk-taking on the part of offenders. Such programmes have achieved much higher rates of improving behaviour including reductions in drug taking by over 70 per cent.

Relationships and respect matter too. Changing the behaviour of prisoners requires them to respect the staff – which swift and certain measures can help achieve – but also for the staff to show they are invested in helping the prisoner in turning his life around (95% of the prison population are male). Such an approach has been seen some of the most difficult schools transformed and is used by the most successful addiction treatment centres.

This will only work, however, in a clean, safe environment – and here Mr Gauke’s announcement  is welcome. To stand a chance of rehabilitating a serious number of the more than 85,000 people in English and Welsh prisons, drugs must be kept out, rubbish and filth cleared away, and order restored. This won’t be sufficient, but it is a necessary first step.

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