Unlocking prisoner potential: why greater transparency can drive better outcomes

12 February 2016

“Which is the best performing prison in the country? Which is the prison that is achieving the best reoffending results?  …. The answer is we don’t know. Seriously we have no idea. This just isn’t good enough.”

 David Cameron, 8 February 2016

On Monday, in his first speech on prison reform, the Prime Minister laid out his vision for a more effective prison service. A critical part of this will be the creation of six “reform prisons” committed to promoting the rehabilitation of offenders and run by more autonomous and empowered governors. This he said would begin to address the failure of an estate that sees nearly half of those it releases go on to reoffend within 12 months and where an average inmate will have 16 convictions.

However, alongside more structural reforms to the estate, Cameron also made clear that a key plank of the Conservative’s penal reform strategy must be to increase transparency within the prison service. Central to this will be new publically available prison league tables comparing prisons not only using traditional metrics but also their ability to reduce reoffending and boost offenders’ opportunities post-release. Increasing our measurement of prisoner outcomes is an important focus of Reform’s upcoming paper on the prison estate – as using more meaningful measures can have a number of advantages for both policy makers and practitioners.

Firstly, greater transparency will enable those working within the system to learn from what works and adapt internal policies and practices accordingly. It will also contribute to innovation as governors try interventions aimed at improving the outcomes these new performance measures will assess.

Secondly, by having a more meaningful understanding of performance Government and the public can better hold prison leaders to account.

Lastly, by clearly defining and measuring outcomes such as reoffending, policymakers can better use tools such as Payment by Results which have driven performance in other sectors.

This move is encouraging. Currently the Government has a number of mechanisms for measuring prison performance – the most widely cited being the independent inspection reports produced by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. However, these fail to contain an assessment of longer term outcomes such as reoffending. Given the potential economic savings outlined above, and that a key part of the prison service’s mission statement is to ensure offenders lead law abiding lives on release, this gap in performance measurement is somewhat surprising.

Current performance frameworks do consider the provision of activities which aim to promote rehabilitation such as accredited offender behaviour programmes. However, an understanding of whether prisoners are offered resettlement opportunities cannot begin to tell us whether the provision of programmes are actually successful at improving the life-chances of prisoners on release. Completion numbers alone also fail to provide insight into which programmes or mix of programmes can help address criminal behaviour within specific offender populations.

Improved performance measurement can help ensure prisons build the right structures and processes to improve outcomes whilst also reducing costs. The Prime Minister’s calls for greater transparency should therefore be welcomed.

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