Turning around our prison system

Reform Think Tank report sets out the priority areas for investment in our failing prison system.

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A new report by the Reform Think Tank published today sets out the priorities for turning around our failing prison system. The prison system: Priorities for investment, written by Aidan Shilson-Thomas, looks at four main areas:

  • Smarter sentencing
  • Creating a fit for purpose prison estate
  • Improving prison safety
  • Developing the workforce

Who are Reform?

Although Reform emphasise their political independence and the fact that they are a charity, it seems fair to say that they have close associations with the Conservative Party – they were founded by a Conservative MP and their current director, Charlotte Pickles, previously worked as an adviser to Iain Duncan Smith.

It’s quite common for Reform to advance views in keeping with the latest thinking among Conservative-minded politicians and thinkers which always makes their reports worth reading.

Getting prison reform back on track

The report’s introduction sets out in stark terms how the Government’s plans to overhaul the prison system, set out in their 2016 White Paper “Prisons Safety and Reform” has been completely derailed by a lack of investment.
The report summarises have prisons have become less safe and decent, despite the aspiration set out in the White Paper. It acknowledges that many prisons are not providing opportunities to address prisoners’ behaviours and that new and inexperienced prison staff are learning in (or leaving) a tense and demoralising environment. The consequences are of course poor social outcomes and reoffending.

Reform argues for “urgent and evidence led” investment in prison services. The think tank urges reduction in the use of unhelpful short prison sentences, championing the “smart justice” approach developed by previous Justice Secretary David Gauke, but apparently abandoned under the new leadership of Robert Buckland with the new government focusing its message much more on being “tough on crime and criminals”.

Reform argues that staff are the key agents to helping prisoners to change and that they must have prisons that are decent and safe to work in. The think tank calls for investment in equipment to reduce the supply of drugs and a decent level of pay for staff with continuous investment in training.

 

Recommendations

The report concludes with six main recommendations:

  1. The Ministry of Justice should launch a consultation on the use of custodial sentences and consider the impact of implementing a ban on, or presumption against, short custodial sentences. It should also consider how to make magistrates more willing to use and improve their understanding of a community sentence, as they are less expensive than prison sentences and, on average, more effective at reducing reoffending.
  2. The Ministry of Justice should develop a strategy for future prison closures which considers various factors such as their location, efficiency and effectiveness or whether they would be too difficult to replace. This will help the Government to create a more fit-for-purpose estate.
  3. The Ministry of Justice should devolve a portion of the facilities management budget to prison governors. This could allow for minor maintenance problems to be addressed more quickly by local provision.
  4. The Government should fund the Ministry of Justice £900 million to address the growing maintenance backlog in prisons, to improve standards of decency and safety.
  5. The Government should ensure that the Ministry of Justice receives additional annual funding to sustain new and improved prison security measures, so that prisons can continue to disrupt the supply of contraband in the long term.
  6. Her Majesty’s Treasury should ensure that Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has enough funding to close the pay gap between Closed and Fair & Sustainable pay grades by 2027, to end the two-tier pay system for Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service staff.

We must wait and see whether the new government is prepared to invest funds in our failing prison system.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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