Cost saving has terrible consequences
The House of Commons Justice Committee recent (18 March 2015) report on prison planning and policies is written in the same careful, understated fashion as all such reports, betraying the need to find an All-Party consensus on the findings.
Chaired by Alan Beith (@BerwickLibDems), the report nevertheless rips the heart out of government penal policy with some trenchant criticism.
The report focuses on the MoJ’s ambition to replace old inefficient prisons with new, modern cheaper-to-run ones and concludes that the downside of cost saving – poor regimes and unsafe prisons – far outweigh the advantages.
A litany of problems
While the report endorses the aim of replacing outdated prisons with modern establishments, it highlights the large number of failings set out below, many of which are attributed to the very high levels of imprisonment despite the lowest crime rate in over 20 years.
- Overcrowding – almost one quarter of prisoners are still held in crowded conditions
- The new large, multi-purpose prisons save costs but are hard to manage safely.
- Prison safety has deteriorated markedly and is particularly troubling, with an increase in assaults and self-inflicted deaths.
- Performance has also dropped with fewer opportunities for prisoners to undertake purposeful work or education.
The Committee clearly states that changes in policy and particularly the very substantial cuts in resources have made prisons much less safe, although, again, in typically undramatic language:
“We conclude that the fall in staffing levels stemming from redundancies and increased turnover, which at their most acute have resulted in severely restricted regimes, are bound to reduce the consistency of relationships between officers and prisoners, and in turn affected safety.”
Again, the Committee applauds the principle of resettlement prisons but questions the manner in which these are being set up; in particular the impact on non-resettlement establishments.
The Committee highlights under-resourcing again and says that unless staffing shortages are addressed and the backlog of risk assessments cleared, the new probation providers will be hampered “considerably” in their efforts to provide a better through-the-gate service and reduce reoffending.
An overly-centralised approach
The Committee says that prison governors have a very difficult job since they are no longer responsible for the sum total of everything that happens within their prison walls; citing two main factors:
- The proliferation of partner organisations providing services to prisons which, the Committee argues, could distract prison management teams from their core role.
- The constraint on their operational decisions when so many decisions are taken from the centre on such matters as the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, the “lights out” policy and release on temporary licence.
The Committee’s report concludes by doubting that the prison modernisation programme will be able to keep pace with the prison population which is predicted to continue to grow:
“There is a risk that as the building of new prisons inevitably takes place several years in advance of those places becoming available, by the time they are in operation it would not be possible to yield savings from further prison closures as there are insufficient places to meet demand.”
The Committee’s final conclusion is that we imprison too many people and need to find more successful and cost-effective ways to reduce reoffending; below I reproduce the final sentence from the report’s summary:
“We conclude that the size of the prison budget, the fact that it completely dominates expenditure on crime, the importance of reducing crime… all indicate that we need to re-evaluate how we use custody and alternatives to custody in a cost-effective way which best promotes the safety of the public and reduces future crime.”