Unlocking prison performance


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Increasing productivity remains a key challenge for government. This is particularly true of the public sector where official estimates indicate that productivity has grown by just 0.1 per cent per annum between 1991 and 2013. As the Chancellor has argued, without sustained productivity improvements the United Kingdom will fail to maintain living standards and achieve economic growth in the longer-term.

Current productivity measures, however, are fundamentally flawed. For the most part they remain sector-level analyses focussed on the volume of outputs produced, rather than the quality of the services or their value to citizens. Despite the pressing need to find productivity gains, little is known about how individual public institutions are performing, hindering the ability to learn from best practice and maximise value for money.

Person in handcuffs

This problem is very evident in the prison service. Official estimates use the number of prisoners held as the single output measure, which fails to take into account either the conditions for offenders or the quality of rehabilitative support provided. Government measures of prison performance also fail to take advantage of reoffending data. What matters is not being effectively measured.

Hence, whilst the significant savings delivered over the last Parliament may indicate improved productivity in the prison estate, increases in violence, overcrowding and self-harm show deteriorating outputs – but not ones that current productivity estimates capture. In addition, reoffending rates have barely changed in a decade. These factors have led the Justice Select Committee, amongst others, to question whether a focus on short-term cost-saving measures have, in some prisons, resulted in poorer longer-term performance.

It is therefore clear that a new performance measurement framework is needed: one which captures both how prisons spend their money to provide a safe environment and whether they improve the life-chances of offenders released from their care. Encouragingly, the Government recognises this: in a landmark speech on prison reform the Prime Minister announced the creation of new prison league tables which would balance the need to dip test performance at a given point in time with measuring longer-term outcomes. To date, however, the method and framework for producing these remain unknown.

Prison

This paper seeks to fill this gap and lays out a new model for performance measurement. Through ranking a group of comparable prisons against a frontier of best practice Reform also aims to identify high – and low – performing prisons and thus the scope for improvement across a number of metrics.

Firstly, the analysis considers prison efficiency by evaluating whether prisons spend wisely, keep prisoners and staff safe and promote rehabilitative activities. Secondly, an evaluation of prison effectiveness looks at how successful prisons are at reducing reoffending and supporting prisoners into education, training, employment and accommodation on release. Taken together these measures allow an assessment of performance in the short and long term, and most importantly help determine whether individual prisons are delivering value for money to taxpayers.

There is, however, a significant need for improved data availability and quality. The success of any performance model hinges on the integrity of the data used and as this report argues, current data is both lacking and poor quality. In particular, publically available financial data is woefully inadequate. Whilst some financial data can be obtained on public prisons via a Freedom of Information request, the Ministry of Justice do not even collect this data for private prisons. This limits the ability for contractors to be held to account, but also for lessons to be learnt where private prison places are cheaper. For example, at privately run HMP Oakwood the cost per place is £12,210 per annum compared with an average of £21,382 for Category C prisons.

Wired fence

Within these constraints however, Reform’s analysis of 40 Category B and C prisons shows that, across both the four efficiency and two effectiveness indicators, there is significant variation in performance. Closing the gap between the best and worst performing prisons therefore presents considerable opportunity to both realise savings and improve outcomes.

The analysis also shows that the most efficient prisons are not necessarily the most effective, reinforcing the potential need to make trade-offs in the short and longer-term. Few prisons are able to transform good prisoner living conditions or high levels of resettlement provision (for example accredited courses and drug treatment) into improved life chances for offenders on release. Data availability and quality prevents further analysis of this, but the Ministry of Justice should prioritise further examination of those prisons which are able to buck the trend and perform well against both measures.

The forthcoming Prison Reform Bill provides an opportune moment to address these issues and bring greater clarity and transparency to prison performance. This is an essential step for a Justice Secretary committed to reforming the prison estate to deliver better outcomes for prisoners. Greater transparency and a focus on outcomes are also essential for increasing productivity and delivering value for money. This report aims to provide a helpful step towards this goal.

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