Prison: Mission Impossible?

By Mark Leech

On my desk today have landed two Reports, both from the Prisons Inspectorate, and both published today.

The first, on High Down prison is Surrey, speaks of an ‘Energetic Management’ that has really improved safety in the prison while the second, on HMYOI Feltham A (that part of the Young Offender Institution that holds a volatile mix of 15-17 year olds) reveals a prison where safety is in such total chaos the Chief Inspector has issued his sixth-ever Urgent Notification demanding action.

In a nutshell what is the problem with our prison system?

I will tell you what I think.

It is about competing views, and the priority which those who can make decisions attach to each.

On one side you have Joe Bloggs, the man on the Clapham Omnibus, Joe reads The Sun and, in the immortal words of Yes Prime Minister, Joe doesn’t care who runs the country as long as she has big tits.

Joe believes that punishment, hard work, austere conditions, and long sentences are the right response to crime – teach ’em a lesson they won’t forget.

Joe Bloggs can vote – so he is fluent in the language that politicians speak.

On the other side you have The Guardian reading (and often writing) academic experts; they point to the evidence and say – well, yes OK Joe, but we’ve tried all of that for 150 years and it doesn’t work.

Of course it doesn’t work – why should it?

Our prisons today are filled with people who come from high-crime inner-city housing estates, with their school exclusions, poor parenting, lack of opportunities, unemployment, gang, guns, drugs, alcohol and knife cultures.

It’s madness to think you can take someone out of that environment, put them in prison – where they are with people they have grown up with – and at the end of their sentence toss them back into exactly the same toxic environment you took them out of, and expect their time in prison to have changed anything.

It won’t – well rarely anyway and more by luck than design if it does.

In many ways in expecting our prisons to reform people we are asking the impossible – crime is a problem society must solve; prisons cannot do it in a vacuum.

Expecting our prisons to deliver reform by themselves is like the hamster on its wheel; utterly convinced that if they just keep going they’ll get there in the end.

And making prisons harder isn’t the answer either – it’s full of people who have spent a lifetime telling authority to f*!k off, they aren’t afraid of prison either as an institution or any one individual within it – many first went to prison holding their mother’s hand while visiting their father.

And then, in the middle of Joe and the academic experts, you have a bewildered population consisting of 83,000 prisoners, 40,000 staff, and a Prison and Probation Service that is completely disorientated by abrupt policy changes, savage budget cuts, reorganisations (we have had five of those in the last ten years) and constant changes of Justice Secretary – ironically as I write, given the election of Boris Johnson yesterday, we will today have our sixth Justice Secretary in as many years – Grayling, Gove, Truss, Lidington and Gauke.

This was all summed up neatly a century ago.

In 1922 George Bernard Shaw wrote the ‘Retribution Muddle’ in which he wrote:

“Now if you are to punish a man retributively, you must injure him. If you are to reform him, you must improve him. And men are not improved by injuries.” (English Prisons Under Local Government, 1922, Sydney & Beatrice Webb; preface page xiv)

Added to this we have the debate about public or private prisons, and privatised Probation too and the chaos caused by the so-called Through The Gate (and Right Back In Again) ideology.

On the other side of that Gate there is the rise to constantly breaking records of violence in prisons, drugs, suicides, self-harm and a Prisons Inspectorate that, as we have seen, has today issued its sixth Urgent Notification publicly demanding action.

So how do we sort out this mess?

How do we take politics out of it and put evidence in its place?

We need something we have never, ever, had: a Public Inquiry into our Prison System.

We have had many ad hoc private inquiries, Woolf, May, Mountbatten, Learmont, Woodcock – and half a dozen of others too whose Reports are languishing on a shelf somewhere in the Ministry of Justice library – I suspect they’re to be found in the ‘fiction’ section.

We have had a plethora of reports, on different subjects, but none that pulls it all together.

That is what we need.

We need a Public Inquiry that, based on evidence, can define the ‘Mission’: what it is that we want our prison system to deliver; in terms of punishment, retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and reducing reoffending.

And how we dovetail that with real support services for those that leave prison – and just as importantly, how we deliver support for those who need it, long before they ever go near a prison at all.

Once we have the evidence-based ‘Mission’ clear – then all we have to do is resource it to deliver exactly that.

Simple eh?

I wish!

Mark Leech is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales, he tweets under the name @prisonsorguk