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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Michael Gove says public prisons can succeed

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Justice Secretary says autonomy for prison governors is critical to successful penal reform and that he has no plans for privatisation.

Dare to be different

On Thursday (12 May 2016), Michael Gove addressed the Governing Governors’ Forum and made a strong pitch that Governors would be critical to his vision of penal reform and would be given autonomy to run their own establishments.

The MoJ published the speech the following day and below are my selected highlights.

Michael Gove started by saying that the:

principal purpose of prison is rehabilitation

and then promised governors his full backing:

We want you to dare to be different – to exercise as much autonomy as possible – to be guided by moral purpose not manuals and rulebooks – in your mission to change lives for good.

Making prisons safer

The Justice Secretary acknowledged that the most recent figures for deaths in custody and violence in prisons are terrible and set out some of the MoJ’s measures to address the situation:

  • Recruiting more prison officers — a nett increase of 530 since January 2015
  • Trialling the use of body-worn cameras
  • Strengthening the case management of “individuals at risk of harming others”
  • A new Violence Reduction Project to gain a better understanding of the causes and characteristics of violence.
  • A new project on suicide and self-harm will give extra support to vulnerable prisoners.

Governors at the heart of change

Mr Gove announced that from July 1, four “trailblazing” governors will be appointed to s216_michael-goverun prisons with the maximum possible level of autonomy under current legislation. He promised that while these early adopters will have huge scope to innovate, every governor will be granted greater autonomy and expected to use new freedoms to improve rehabilitation.

Gove went on to set out some of his key objectives:

  • “I want to see prisoners spend much more time engaged in the sort of purposeful activity which prepares them for life on the outside – pursuing worthwhile educational qualifications, or working in an environment that will help them get a satisfying job on release.”
  • Governors given control of prison education budgets – the Coates review into prison education will be published “shortly”.
  • Giving Governors more control over prisoner incentive and privileges learning from the system at the Military Corrective Training Centre in Colchester
  • Reviewing the position of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences under (now discontinued) IPP legislation.
  • Enable governors to release more prisoners on temporary release.

A long road – but privatisation not the destination

Intriguingly, Michael Gove concluded his speech by directly refuting concerns that his penal reform process was a covert strategy for privatising the majority of the prison service which is still in the public sector:

Some people believe my reform programme to empower the men and women in this room has an ulterior motive.

Not true.

While I have the utmost respect for our private prison operators, I also have faith in NOMS, its leaders and its staff to turn around jails. Over the coming months and years, some change will happen quickly.

The effects of other reforms will take longer, as we go further to help the most disadvantaged, and open up opportunities in education and work.

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