|Gove: Boris didn’t even see it coming|
True, there has been the much vaunted announcement of six ‘reform prisons’ where governing governors will enjoy far greater autonomy than their counterparts in non-reform establishments, but it’s unclear whether this experiment will deliver a model that could be rolled out across the whole dysfunctional system. It remains early days, yet with the current crisis engulfing prisons in violence on a daily basis time may fast be running out.
It is also worth noting that Mr Gove has encouraged governors to make more use of Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) as part of the resettlement process. This is in stark contrast to his predecessor, ‘Calamity Chris’ who responded to a handful of serious incidents by doing his best to eliminate any potential risk to the public by imposing restrictions on the granting on ROTL. These include requiring time-consuming psychological evaluations, as well as increasing the amount of bureaucracy involved prior to the granting of temporary release. The end result has been to set back resettlement work at many jails, especially Cat-Ds (open prisons).
|IPP: no laughing matter|
Of these prisoners, 400 or so have now served sentences five times longer than their tariff, often because offending behaviour courses are unavailable or because they live with mental health conditions that hold back their progress. It is also well documented that IPPs have disproportionally higher rates of suicide and self-harm than other inmates.
However, it is should also be noted that behind these positive initiatives lies a prison system deep in crisis. Anyone still in any doubt about this should take a long hard look at the report issued in May by Parliament’s Justice Committee, the body of MPs that oversees the work of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).
|Justice Committee: damning conclusions on prisons|
Violence – both between prisoners and against members of staff – has continued to dominate our prisons, while suicide and self-harm statistics remain appallingly high and show no sign of abating. Moreover, overcrowded wings are quite literally awash with drugs of all kinds and illicit mobile phones are readily available to keep criminal businesses operational from behind bars. These challenges are evident in the pages of almost report issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons or the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.
In the last couple of years our prisons have become much more dangerous places. Incidents of ‘concerted indiscipline’ – which can range from a few prisoners refusing to return to their cells, right up to full scale riots that leave whole wings uninhabitable – take place behind the high walls out of public view. Few cases actually make it into the media unless one or more prisoners actually manage to make it up on to the roof where the authorities can’t keep it quiet. Often it is only the local papers that report on the disturbances taking place.
|Tactical response: a cell extraction|
A significant amount of violence in prisons is gang-related, as well as linked closely to the drugs trade and cycles of debt that this encourages. Although the new Psychoactive Substances Act, which became law on 26 May 2016, criminalises the possession in prison of what were once called ‘legal highs’, it is probably too early to predict what the impact on the availability and use of such drugs in prisons will be. Past experience with other illegal drugs suggests that the affect may well be marginal, other than putting the prison disciplinary system under further strain.
|EU prisoners face tensions|
Many prisons also remain understaffed and this continues to have a negative impact on the daily regime provided, leaving more and more inmates locked in their cells for up to 22 or 23 hours per day, thus fuelling resentment and anger. At the same time, the recruitment drive to plug gaps in staffing at prisons in England and Wales was not delivering very impressive results. Of the 2,250 prison officers recruited in 2015, only 440 remained in post, a situation attributed to poor retention rates.
Whatever the outcome of Mr Gove’s bid for the Conservative Party leadership, it seems a fairly safe bet that his time at the MOJ is effectively over. It could be argued that in the 13 months he has been in post he has at least initiated various policy reviews and that some of these will take time to come to fruition. Supporters will no doubt cite the launch of the ‘reform prisons’ as evidence that there is at least the potential for fundamental change in the way our prisons are managed at a local level. Critics point out that many so-called new initiatives have actually been attempted previously, but have been abandoned for a range of reasons, including cost or political expediency.
|HMP Wandsworth: overcrowded|
Bold initiatives, such as granting early release to many prisoners who are serving short sentences for non-violent offences, or greatly reducing the number of unconvicted people being held on pre-trial remand do not seem to be on the MOJ agenda. It is worth noting that on average only 17 percent of the 10,000 remand prisoners will actually receive a custodial sentence at court. The remainder will either have charges dropped, will be acquitted or will be given a non-custodial penalty. Each prisoner still costs the taxpayer an average of £36,260 per year, innocent or guilty.
Then there is the vexed question of foreign national prisoners who usually account for around 10,000 of the prison population at any time. The Early Removal Scheme (ERS) which offers foreign nationals who volunteer to leave the UK up to 270 days ‘discount’ on their sentences does exist, but as the Justice Committee has regularly highlighted, it is very poorly managed and numbers taking advantage of it remain low. In addition, there is a lengthy list of categories of prisoner who are not eligible for this incentive (which is separate to the bilateral system for transferring foreign nationals back to their home countries to continue serving their sentences).
|MOJ: more budget cuts to come?|
If Mr Gove’s time at the MOJ is indeed coming to an end, he will leave a poisoned chalice for his successor. Expectations for fundamental reform of our prison system remain high and, as the Justice Committee has warned, the current situation is simply not sustainable. On the other hand, staff morale is at rock bottom and the strategy for recruitment and retention of new officers is not proving a success. Whoever takes over may find that there is a very long, hot summer ahead regardless of the weather outside.