Are “prisons in the UK stretched past their limit”?

8 November 2016

Reform was very proud to host Liz Truss last week as she outlined her vision of prison reform. It was an important moment for her department, signalled by the fact that her other Ministers, and Permanent Secretary, all attended with her. The Ministry will have wanted to deliver on the call for reform made by the former Prime Minister in February and by Liz Truss’s predecessor earlier this year.

The response to her speech was dominated by the idea that the prisons need more money. The Shadow Justice Secretary said, “The root cause of the prison crisis is the political decision to cut our prison service back to the bone.” Today, a Financial Times leader is headlined, “Prisons in the UK are stretched past their limit.” It goes on to question the approach of incarceration of all, and to call for far fewer offenders to be sent to prison.

It is certainly the case that prison violence has risen since the reductions in prisons budgets began. It is sometimes asked which public services have deteriorated in the period of budget cuts. My answer to that has been prisons, because of the rise in violence; social care; and defence (because the UK still hasn’t reconciled its ambitions to have a global military role with much lower budgets).

What is not so clear, however, is whether budget cuts are the sole, or major, cause of rising violence. Other factors could include a lack of reform in many areas, from an old-fashioned estate to workforce to prison management (including the restrictions on for-profit management imposed in the last Parliament) to new technology. Equally the environment may have changed, for example by introducing a more challenging prisoner population as well as new psychoactive substances.

To clarify the situation, we need better data. As David Cameron said, however, the current prisons rating system is just the beginning:

“What is the best performing prison in the country? Which is the prison that is achieving the best reoffending results? Which is the prison where offenders get the best qualifications to help them get a job when they’re released? The answer is: we don’t know. Seriously, we have no idea. This just isn’t good enough.”

In April, Reform’s paper Unlocking prison performance made an analogous point, about how productivity is measured in criminal justice:

“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. 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.”

For this reason, the most important part of Liz Truss’s announcement was not 2,500 additional prison officers but the creation of “an evidence and data-driven system”. Such an approach will identify the prisons that are working and will help to identify the reasons why. In Reform’s experimental assessment of the existing, imperfect data, very few prisons achieved the twin goals of efficient day-to-day running and effective delivery of better long term outcomes for prisoners. We advocated closer study of those institutions.

Lastly, another reform that attracted relatively little attention was the shift in accountability at the top of the system, making the civil servants responsible for delivering prisons (the National Offender Management Service) more clearly accountable to the Secretary of State. The aim will be to accelerate reform within NOMS, which is a good goal. In the longer term, Liz Truss may look towards a decentralisation of services as an even better way to achieve that, as advocated by Kevin Lockyer and Richard Heys for Reform in May. That could also enable a package of reform that takes prisons and probation together, in the whole-systems approach that is needed. As the White Paper rightly concludes, prisons cannot alone deliver the services that prisoners need:

“91. We also know that a vital part of reform is preparing offenders properly for life after prison, creating the right conditions to help prevent a return to crime. This is not just the job of prisons, of course. They must work in partnership with probation to make sure that prisoners have a home to go to when they are released, a key factor in reducing the likelihood of them returning to crime. While we cannot expect them to be responsible for services outside the prison, governors should be able to work effectively as partners with probation, and with other important services such as Jobcentre Plus, local councils and healthcare providers.”

Andrew Haldenby, Director, Reform

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