Chance to change: the case (and plan) for prison reform

9 February 2016

This week I attended the event where the Prime Minister gave a thoughtful speech of prison reform. There’s lots to welcome and more to do. Here’s five things you need to know about what he said.

              1.   ‘It’s well over 20 years since a Prime Minister gave a speech solely about prisons’.

Yet it’s long overdue. Almost one in two prisoners go on to reoffend within a year of release. The figure is even higher for those with sentences of less than one year. Prison might work for the period that offenders are inside. But it’s not working beyond that. Prisons have become revolving door institutions, with reoffending costing the taxpayer £13bn per year, offenders given insufficient opportunities to turn their lives around, and creating new victims of crime. Things have to change.

               2.  A ‘sterile ‘lock ’em up’ or ‘let ’em out’ debate … has often got in the way of real change’.

That’s why the Prime Minister rightly called for greater innovation in sentencing and in the support and expectations in prisons. He also rightly acknowledged that prisons are not holiday camps (a slight dig at the previous Justice Secretary perhaps?) and argued that education, training and work requirements are not soft options – they are in many ways more challenging than simply shutting the cell door. At the same time, being tough on criminals was not the same as being tough on crime (surely a veiled dig at Tony Blair’s famous ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ soundbite).

               3.  ‘Put professionals in the lead and remove the bureaucratic micromanagement that disempowers them’

There are 46,000 pages of rules, regulations and guidance, including that a prisoner is allowed 12 sheets of music in their cell. You do need rules and standards, but this is surely excessive. So the Government will bring the academies model from the school system, creating six Reform Prisons this year. These will give governors greater freedoms and flexibilities, and control over budgets and providers. A good idea in principle, I’d argue, but it does rely heavily on having the right governors and also a clear accountability framework….

                4.   ‘With freedom and autonomy must come accountability’

The Prime Minister argued we don’t have data on which is the best performing prison, or which is best at rehabilitation. So the Government will develop meaningful metrics around reducing reoffending, employment outcomes and improvements in literacy and key skills. This is all sensible – an open approach to data is something that many public services could improve on. Getting the measures right is crucial, otherwise it’s easy to incentivise the wrong behaviours.

                5.   ‘We must think afresh about prison education. 50% of prisoners have the English and Maths skills of a primary school child’

The Coates Review hasn’t even reported yet but already has a recommendation accepted! Prison governors will have control over the education budget and there will be more focus on outcomes such as jobs rather than qualifications. This is the sort of approach Learning & Work Institute has called for, so we welcome it. Indeed we have just launched Language for Change, testing ways of delivering English for Speakers of Other Languages alongside numeracy, financial and health capabilities and citizenship.

This is such an important topic, but one that’s for too long been neglected. There’s a great chance for education providers to work with new reform prisons and prison governors to deliver the support we know will help reduce reoffending.

We will continue to work for change. It’s great to see the Prime Minister focus on it – we need to give people better chances to change for the benefit of society as a whole.