When Michael Gove was unceremoniously hoofed out of the justice ministry in the post-Brexit reshuffle, there was consternation in the prison sector. It might shock teachers – who bore the brunt of his attacks on “the Blob”, as he called the education establishment – but his plans for prison reform were broadly popular among those who work in and manage Britain’s jails.
The fear was that the demise of Gove also meant the longest of long grass for his plans to give governors more control over their budgets. There was also concern that Liz Truss, the new justice minister, might return to the tabloid-friendly gimmicks, hatred of scrutiny, swingeing cuts and obsession with privatisation that characterised the unhappy reign of Chris Grayling.
The full details of what’s coming will be released this afternoon, but from the pre-briefing it looks like the reforms are a mixed bag. In the magazine this week, I’ve written a profile of Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, and one of the things that came across strongly from my conversations with her and others is that the problems with our prisons are deep and structural. There are too many people in jail (double the number there were when Margaret Thatcher left office) and too few staff to manage them and keep them safe. Since Truss took office, there has been a suicide in a British prison every three days. In October, there was a six-hour riot at Lewes prison, and a 21-year-old man was stabbed to death in Pentonville.
The part-privatisation of the probation service has not gone well, with contractors such as Sodexo warning that the deals are loss-making. The private companies involved say they will have to make staff cuts; this is likely to increase reoffending. (Perhaps this incident reveals why some ministers are so keen on outsourcing: when cuts make services unworkable, it’s private companies who can take the blame, not them.)
The flagship move in the White Paper is recruiting 2,100 new prison officers. This is welcomed by everyone in principle, although more cynical observers point out that recruitment is always difficult, particularly in London and the south-east, since the basic salary for a prison officer is just £20,545. (The median salary in London is £32,000.) A new scheme, equivalent to Teach First, also looks promising but the numbers of recruits will initially be small. Even with the new recruits, the number of prison officers will be lower than it was in 2010.
Everyone agrees that drugs – particularly “synthetic psychoactive substances” such as Spice – are a problem in prison. Spice is a particular concern because its effects are unpredictable. There is evidence that drones have been used to get these drugs over fences, and so the idea of no-fly zones is worth investigating. Using eagles (yes, eagles) to take out drones initially sounds like madness, but they are already used in Holland. (Warning: cute photo of a noble bird in a silly hat beyond this link.) Anyone who lives in London might have seen that birds of prey are already used for pest control – bad luck, pigeons.
Ultimately, though, any prison reform that only tries to reform prisons will have limited success. Reoffending rates are currently 50 per cent within the first year: there are few places in hostels, and some prisoners are released with little more than the clothes they stand up in, and the standard £49 grant. Literacy rates among male prisoners are low, and Truss herself told Tory conference in early October that two-thirds of female prisoners are victims of abuse. The sector is also still struggling to undo the damage of Grayling’s “what if we just punish the bastards harder” approach, epitomised by the disastrous (and unlawful) book ban.
There’s an echo of this headline-chasing approach in Truss’s announcement that all prisoners will be tested for drugs on entering and leaving prison. As part of my profile of Frances Crook, I visited two jails with her and the officers there were kind enough to walk me through the booking-in process.
Here’s what happens when you get sent to prison – a closed prison, like Holme House in Teeside, which Crook and I visited after Kirklevington.
You’ll arrive in a van – a “sweatbox” – which holds six to eight people, with plastic moulded seats that wrap around you, and no seatbelts. The journey in the van can be a long one, particularly if the destination is one of the few women’s prisons, so you hope you can hold on that long without a toilet.
The van drives through the prison gates and deposits you at the booking desk to sign in. If you’re a sex offender, you’re put in a small room in case you don’t “get on” with other inmates. You get an ID card, which will cost you £5 to replace, and a phone call lasting three minutes.
There’s an automatic strip search, done in two halves – the top half also sees your mouth, ears and tongue inspected, while the lower half checks the soles of your feet. You might have to sit on the BOSS III chair: the acronym stands for “Body Orifice Security Scanner”, and it will detect if you have a knife stashed in your colon.
Prisoners on remand awaiting trial can wear their own clothes, but everyone else is issued with elasticated jogging bottoms. You now look like a prisoner, the same as everyone else in your wing. To help ease you into life here, you are issued with a pillowcase, cup, toothbrush and toothpaste.
As a treat, you also get two “smoker’s packs” with 12.5g of tobacco and a lighter. (The health-conscious option is a pack of biscuits and a bag of sugar.) And then you’re off to your new home, a cell where you’ll be banged up from 6pm every night, and for several hours during the day, too.
Looking back on this, I wonder where drug-testing would fit in, and what purpose it will serve – beyond making the government look Tough On Drugs (TM). I’m not clear on either question.
The key audience for these reforms, apart from the tabloids, is prison officers themselves. There were nearly 6,000 assaults on them in the year to June (a 43 per cent rise), and the Prison Officers’ Association is considering industrial action. “The reality is this government has caused the problem – they’ve cut the staffing levels, they’ve taken so much money out of the system that the system is broken,” Steve Gillan of the POA told the BBC this morning. “My union will not stand by and watch our members become punch bags.”