Where next for prisons?

11 April 2013

Prison has changed irrevocably for the better in recent decades. Since the Woolf Report, better management, competition and more modern buildings have improved both the operation of institutions and the treatment of prisoners. Yet deep seated issues remain: sustained prison population growth has led to ever greater overcrowding and reoffending rates are high and, indeed, rising. Further, fiscal pressures mean that prisons need to change to deliver more for less. To address these themes, Reform convened a private roundtable seminar on “Where next for prisons?” with Sir Martin Narey, former Director-General of HM Prison Service and the first Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service from 2004-05. The event was held under the Chatham House Rule.

The discussion suggested that new ideas are needed on what prison is for and a better understanding of its limitations. Imprisonment traditionally serves a threefold purpose: retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation. Yet that cocktail has always been mixed too heavily with the first two ingredients. The Government’s “Rehabilitation Revolution” rightly aims to redress the balance, but there is no clear consideration of where prisons, as opposed to other interventions delivered outside custody, can add value in the complex process of mending chaotic criminal lives.

Secondly, prison must be seen in conjunction with other services, not in isolation, so that the right interventions happen in the right place to the right prisoners. The best prisons now sequence interventions to ensure they have the most impact: there’s much more value in prisoners learning bricklaying or plumbing just before release than immediately after arrival. Here, case management is critical. Better technology can improve the transfer of case files between prisons and community partners as prisoners leave the gate; proper collaboration means that changing risk and need are addressed.

Lastly, politicisation is hampering modernisation. The National Offender Management Service was established in 2004 to, among other things, distance ministers from the day-to-day operations of running prisons, while the granting of Trust Status to probation in 2007 suggested a trend towards greater local autonomy. This vision has not materialised and innovation has suffered. Those reforming prison leaders that try new things do so in spite of the system, not because of it. Further, the Government’s ongoing reforms to rehabilitation – intended to introduce greater innovation – have tightened the centre’s grip, rather than loosened it.

Contracting and competition can mitigate these effects by giving providers license to try new things. Private sector companies have long benefited from greater flexibility and protection under formal contracts, and, as Reform found earlier this year, broadly perform better as a result. At the same time, contracts specify demand, meaning they provide an inbuilt safeguard against ever rising rates of imprisonment. The use of contracting must, however, be matched by the necessary procurement capability within departments and the necessary bureaucratic will to hold public providers at the same arm’s length as private companies.

The Government’s consultation on Transforming Rehabilitation concludes next month. Ministers and civil servants must be clear on what prison is for, who is in charge, and where it sits in the criminal justice landscape if their plans to see year-on-year reductions in reoffending are to succeed.

Summary of a Reform roundtable breakfast on “Where next for prisons?” on 10 April 2013, led by Sir Martin Narey, former Director-General of HM Prison Service and Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service.

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