Through the gate

The Government has made some radical steps forward in the “rehabilitation revolution”, proposing far reaching reforms to offender management. By introducing resettlement prisons, extending probation to offenders serving short sentences, and contracting services out in whole or part to a wide range of both public and private providers, the Government hopes to transform the lives of offenders, communities and victims. This Reform­-Home Group roundtable, “Through the gate: Transforming resettlement, reintegration and rehabilitation”, brought together public, private and charity representatives to discuss how these reforms could be best implemented at pace and scale.

Jeremy Wright MP, Minister of State for Prisons and Rehabilitation, opened the discussion by outlining his vision for end-to-end justice in which offender management is seamlessly integrated between prison and probation services. Under his proposals, rehabilitation will not merely start as soon as offenders leave prison, but will be underway as soon as their sentences have begun. The vision is to transform prisons themselves from places of containment to centres of rehabilitation. Jeremy Wright explained that the proposed resettlement prisons will release people from prisons into their own area. Rachael Byrne, Executive Director of Care and Justice Service at Home Group contended that better use of community sentences such as peer mentoring and Home Detention Curfew would support efforts to help offenders reconnect with society.

Jerry Petherick, Managing Director for Custodial and Detention Services at G4S raised concerns that prison governors may become disempowered under these reforms. He warned that governors have a crucial role in the management of prisons, and there is a risk that they are no longer “pulling levers” that are attached to positive outcomes. Liz Calderbank, HM Chief Inspector of Probation set these issues in the context of a rising prison population, and Peter McParlin, National Chairman of the Prison Officer’s Association, attributed this “institutionalised overcrowding” to political interference in the jurisdiction system. He proposed that the prison system needs a new way of working: improvements in technology and skills.

There was consensus around the table that the introduction of new providers will result in new, innovative and more effective ways of working, but there was also concern over how the voluntary and charitable sector will operate in a competitive system of Payment by Results. Frances Flaxington, Director of Community Justice at Catch 22, asserted that voluntary organisations have great potential in this sphere, but that their capacity has to be built further if they are going to be able to deliver consistently at scale. There was debate over the role of government, and the extent to which private providers can support smaller organisations in the supply chain.

Concerns were raised over how standards of safety would be maintained. Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust warned that “all this preoccupation with the market is taking their attention off some very important safety concerns”. Russell Trent, Governor of HMP/YOI Portsmouth was clear that lessons must be learnt from other public sector organisations to ensure that prisons continue to operate safely, responsibly and securely. He pointed to the failings at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust as an example of an institution which lost sight of standards in the face of organisational change.

The far-reaching reforms proposed by the Ministry of Justice will challenge existing structures and require new ways of working across the sector. Opening up the market to competition and changing the purpose of prison from containment to rehabilitation has the potential to revolutionise the delivery of services. To do this effectively, contracts will have to be commissioned intelligently, incentivising providers to work collaboratively towards better outcomes. Despite the challenges, the Minister made clear his commitment to the reforms, concluding, “I don’t want to give the impression by anything I say that we regard this as dead easy and all I’ve got to do is snap my fingers and somehow the estate reforms perfectly in the new way. It’s not going to be like that, and there will be teething troubles. But it’s got to be the right way to go.”