Whitened Paper on Prisons
As a beautiful late autumn slips into the winter of 2016-17 it is difficult not to feel profoundly deflated. The trees remain golden but with the first frosts the leaves are falling everywhere to create a slippery pulp underfoot. The chaotic aftermath of the BREXIT vote has been put in the shade by the truly shocking election of Trump. It has fallen to ex-Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge publicly to remind Lord Chancellor Liz Truss that her duties include defending the judiciary against populist slurs on their independence. Meanwhile a murder at Pentonville and a full-scale riot at Bedford Prison have startled those who doubted it was true that our prisons stand on the edge of a disorder precipice. Into this melee that same Liz Truss has dropped a White Paper on Prison Safety and Reform. It has not raised hopes, less because of what the White Paper says but rather because of that on which it is silent. The deflation stems what was perhaps naïve optimism, but also a change in the world order. Consider first what we thought was an encouraging background.
In September 2015 the then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, made a distinctly positive speech to the Conservative Party conference which was followed by David Cameron’s (albeit Michael Gove inspired) speech on penal reform at Policy Exchange last February – an unprecedented Prime Ministerial intervention. It is worth remembering what they said:
Gove: we should never define individuals by their worst moments…. Committing an offence should not mean that society always sees you as an offender. Because that means we deny individuals the chance to improve their lives, provide for their families and give back to their communities.
Cameron: Politicians from all sides of the political spectrum are starting to realize the diminishing returns from ever higher levels of incarceration…. the truth is that simply warehousing ever more prisoners is not financially sustainable, nor is it necessarily the most cost-effective way of cutting crime…. being tough on criminals is not always the same thing as being tough on crime.
The stage seemed set for serious penal reform because these words were uttered at the same time as the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, was also suggesting at Policy Exchange, the thinktank originator of the office of Police and Crime Commissioner, that PCCs or Big Beast directly elected Mayors might have their remits enlarged by taking on some penal responsibilities and budgets. It did not require a leap of faith to imagine that she was talking to Michael Gove and taking forward the lessons from the hugely successful youth justice revolution since 2008, an over 80% reduction in the number of children entering for the first time the criminal justice system and a 70% reduction in the number of children in custody. Might PCCs, mayors or local authority consortia, have devolved to them, as IPPR, the left-leaning thinktank had suggested, justice re-investment custody budgets for young adult or shorter term prisoners, savings accruing from their creation of community-based diversionary schemes being retained locally. By these means the population pressures on the prison system might be substantially reduced and reoffending rates significantly improved.
Nine months later the White Paper on prisons that Michael Gove promised has appeared, but whitened under Liz Truss almost to the point of vacuity. The White Paper contains noble statements of purpose. – equipping prisoners with the skills they will need on release, and so on. But they are ripped from any honest context of what we know about prisons generally, namely that:
- ceteris paribus prisons represent the worst conceivable environment within which to turn out honest, responsible citizens;
- the worse prison regimes are (punitive, crowded, unsafe, etc) the less likely it is that prisoners will emerge better citizens on release;
- prisons are extremely expensive institutions.
All of which means that imprisonment should be used as parsimoniously as possible, an absolute last resort. That is the bedrock for any realistic prison reform package. And what has the White Paper to say on this issue? Nothing, absolutely nothing. There is no acknowledgement that the principal reason that ‘the prison system is under sustained and serious pressure from security threats and rising levels of violence’ is not because of the ‘recent flood of dangerous psychoactive drugs into our prisons’ and the rise in use of ‘drones and mobile phones’, though of course both are serious aggravating developments. The problem, as Kenneth Clarke acknowledged when re-appointed Home Secretary in 2010 and more recently, is that we are locking up far too many offenders for too long, that we have a record high prison population in a system which is now seriously overcrowded with far too few experienced staff to manage the situation.
Liz Truss’ solution, beyond the palliative of putting back a proportion of the staff numbers so recently taken out, is to pin her hopes on reduced reoffending – fewer prisoners coming back. There are lots of good and sensible proposals in the White Paper – better outcome measures, the development of more precise performance standards, devolving more powers to governors, ensuring that every prisoner has a dedicated case officer (though God knows how many times that initiative has been recycled and failed in the last forty years), but it is pie in the sky to imagine that our prison population is going significantly to reduce by these measures alone. Nor will we build our way out of the overcrowding problem.
What is required is a system whereby localities are incentivised to develop community based alternatives to custody and are financially rewarded when they succeed in generating fewer offenders from their areas who must, on justice grounds and to protect the public from harms they should not have to endure, be shut away. The candidates include less serious offenders, with mental health, drug dependency and multiple educational deficit problems, all of whose challenges are better faced, more effectively and at lower cost, in the community rather than in prison.
It is of course possible that ministers – for inter-departmental collaboration is needed here – are quietly planning the major shift of emphasis in policy that is urgently required. After all the youth justice revolution was delivered with absolutely no fanfare and has scarcely been noticed by the media. It is fervently to be hoped that it is so. For the transformation will be immeasurably more difficult politically to manage if the Government is on the back foot as a result of further, desperate, prison events.
10 November 2016.
 Michael Gove, speech to Conservative Party Conference, 5 Oct 2015.
 David Cameron, speech at Policy Exchange, 8 February 2016
 Theresa May, speech at Policy Exchange, 4 February 2016.
 See Youth Justice Board website for the latest youth justice statistics.
 IPPR (2016) Prisons and Prevention: Giving Local Areas the Power to Reduce Offending, London: IPPR.
 White Paper, paras 18-23