Monday, 8 February 2016

Belated moves to reform prisons

So David Cameron is at last facing up to the facts that there are too many people in prison, that the present prison regime encourages drug abuse and harm to prisoners, and that there has been no official support for reform - save a half-hearted attempt to encourage restorative justice (but without any visible funding) by Kenneth Clarke. Apart from Mr Clarke, the prime minister has consistently appointed Home Office ministers who appeal to the retributivist instincts of Tories, even during the days of the coalition when I am sure his Liberal Democrat partners were pressing him to be more progressive. There is more background information in this Independent article.

His latest appointee, Michael Gove, is clearly set on reversing the trend and I think it has been unfair of Mr Cameron to claim the credit for the initiative. One worry I have is that they are intent on copying an American model, that of the state of Texas, rather than look at the more long-standing justice and reform models of the Scandinavian nations. Could it be that a US-based private company will be involved in running their "reform" prisons?

Another worry is that no attempt seems to have been made to get the prison officers onside. A gulf, similar to that in the worst of British industry between the managers and the managed, has opened up between the governor class and the warders. It's the prison officers who manage, day by day, to keep the existing system from collapse or insurrection. There needs to be more cooperation between governors and staff. It is also important that staffing is brought up to the proper level. Extra expenditure here in the short term will lead to long-term savings.

It is also necessary to back up these reforms with a sensible parole system and a probation service which works. The experiment with privatisation of the latter has not been successful. We also need to cut back the mountain of imprisonable offences which Labour added to the statute book in the thirteen years they were in office.

I believe that if Wales had been granted jurisdiction over police and prisons in the devolution settlement, or in later Wales Acts, we here could have made a better fist of prison reform than in England, bringing reoffending rates below the UK average. Even now, the conservatives in Westminster seek to hold on to these powers in the latest Wales Bill (pdf of the draft here). It is not too late for parliament to release justice, policing and prisons from the reserved powers.

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