Our prison system may be in its most parlous state for decades, but the justice secretary has demonstrated that she is no more likely than any of her predecessors to stray from the “tough on crime” mantra that got us here in the first place.
opted to steer clear of sentencing reform and rejected calls
The parole board chair and former chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, had presented her with a golden opportunity to safely release some 500 prisoners through executive clemency. These prisoners are currently serving imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentences and have already been imprisoned for more than the usual maximum sentences for their offences.
Eschewing political courage, she switched her attention to the need to do more to divert those with mental health and substance misuse problems and urged better use of treatment orders and community sentences: nothing new there.
The difficult bit is what to do in prisons, and Monday night’s BBC Panorama investigation brought into stark relief what we already knew: prisons are in crisis, staff are losing control and drugs are easier to obtain in prison than on the outside. The only thing the programme shied away from was the inconvenient truth that is corruption, the most likely route in for large quantities of “spice”, tin snips and balaclavas.
We are promised 2,500 raw recruits, more drug testing, dog sniffing, mobile phone jamming and no-fly zones for drones. And all rounded off with league tables. I ran HMP Brixton when it was bottom of the “new” league tables in 2003, and can say that meaningless comparisons using dubious data are a demoralising distraction. As for the staff, they adopted the nearby Millwall football motto of “No one likes us, we don’t care”. In reality they cared a lot, but they certainly felt unloved by a system keen to stigmatise them.
Good prisons come from confident, well-trained, well-motivated and well-led staff who know their prisoners and are able to build positive relationships with them. It is because experience has been squandered with catastrophic staffing cuts, and because governors have been emasculated by a crushing bureaucracy, that we have the levels of violence and disorder detailed in Monday night’s Panorama.
As Truss has said, it’s a long way back, but the starting point is the prison governor. There are some superb, able governors out there; unsung heroes praying silently (because speaking out is forbidden) just to be left alone to govern. The soon-to-be-replaced National Offender Management Service (Noms) was incapable of letting go. It created endless rules overseen by civil servants who remained unaccountable. The current chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, relayed to the justice select committee examples of deputy directors of custody (the bosses of governors) agreeing with his lamentable analysis of jails for which they were accountable but whose shortcomings they were blind to. Ironically some governors have migrated to the private sector, not for the large pay rise but for the shorter lines of accountability and clarity of delivery that comes with a contracted-out service. Governors should be encouraged to look downwards to the staff they employ and the prisoners they are tasked to care for. They should also look outwards to the communities they serve. Looking upwards to self-serving bureaucracies has bred the current crisis.
While there are governors out there capable of dealing with the autonomy promised in the latest white paper, others will struggle. There is a great need therefore to spread the net to recruit others from the world of health, education, substance misuse and business. Current attempts to recruit externally for Belmarsh and Manchester prisons, where no serving governors will apply, are risible when the basic salary is a mere £65,000. If our new Prison and Probation Service is to bring much-needed cultural change, it will have to pay governors at least as much as inner-city headteachers. Noms was closed and lacking in transparency: its replacement must be open, transparent and innovative and above all see governors as part of the solution, not the problem.Governors are the seeds of prison reform. We must stop burying them too deeply.