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A blueprint for prison reform
The long-awaited Future Prison report from the RSA, "A matter of conviction" sets out a blueprint for prison reform & a challenge to politicians of all parties.

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A matter of conviction

Ambitious. Radical. Fundamental. Optimistic. Challenging.

Just a few of the adjectives that, for me, describe the RSA’s blueprint for a new system of community-based rehabilitative prisons.

A Matter of Conviction, published today, is the product of seven years’ work by the RSA and Transitions Spaces to develop a new vision of the prison system in England and Wales which puts rehabilitation as its primary focus.

Regular readers will be aware of this work, known as the Future Prisons project, which has been seeking to put flesh on the bones of the government’s announced intention of sweeping prison reform.

The project has worked closely with government, the initial report had a foreword by Michael Gove when he was Justice Secretary and the Advisory Group includes Dame Sally Coates (author of the government’s prison education review), Nick Hardwick (the previous, highly respected, Chief Inspector of Prisons), John Podmore, James Timpson etc. A number of serving and released prisoners as well as very many prison staff have contributed to the development of the ideas and recommendations in the report.

The report is a challenging read because it includes not only a forensic analysis of why the prison system is failing and a detailed vision of a better future but a, sometimes controversial, strategy on how to get from here to there. The graphic below is a representation of “rehab culture”


The vision

The document is a big read (although there is a punchy 2-page summary here) and I would struggle to do it full justice here, so intricate and inter-linked are its arguments.

However, I will seek to outline the key principles before highlighting some of the principal recommendations.

The key principles include:

  • A vision of prisons as part of their local communities, linked closely to them and their labour markets.
  • A belief that when organisations and individuals are engaged in a discussion of the realities of imprisonment and rehabilitation, they are often motivated to become involved and see prisoners (current and released) as part of their community.
  • Prison staff as the key drivers of change who require better pay and more investment in their training and more trust in their abilities.
  • Prisoners and their families as key assets in co-producing a better prison system.
  • A much-less centralised, more devolved system with much more autonomy at a local prison level and a much-reduced role for NOMS.
  • A closer link between research and best practice.
  • Much more integration between the prison and probation services.
  • A belief that prison reform can only take place with cross-party political leadership and a more mature and honest attitude to the management of risk.

The graphic below shows the report’s vision of devolution:


Key recommendations

The recommendations themselves (which to my mind are coherent and extremely well-argued) probably need to be read in context of their supporting arguments in order to be convincing.

They will require a brave and intelligent response from both ministers and civil servants and a honest commitment to devolution to work. The Future Prison project does not seek to advance a detailed blueprint which should be applied across the country but acknowledges that different solutions will be required in different regions depending on existing political structures, the strengths and interests of individual Police and Crime Commissioners and the local prison estate.

How could there be a one-size solution when Kent has 10 prisons and Gloucestershire has none?

Nevertheless, I hope to whet your appetite by listing some of the key recommendations below:

  • The development of a national rehabilitation strategy.
  • A new statutory duty of rehabilitation for prisons and probation.
  • More investment in prison staff and a proper workforce skills strategy which looks to build a more resilient and empowered workforce who are key to a rehabilitative system.
  • A Centre of Prisons (and Probation?) Excellence modelled on the College of Policing.
  • A smaller, arm’s length NOMS.
  • Local prison boards to foster greater autonomy, closer links with local education providers and employers, while preserving accountability.
  • A staged process of devolution with Police and Crime Commissioners and/or Mayors key.
  • Integrating proper health provision for prisoners and offenders in the community.

I’d like to leave the last word to the report’s authors, Rachel O’Brien and Jack Robson, as they lay down a challenge not just to government but to politicians of all parties:

While prisons are exceptional in nature, they are not as exceptional as sometimes argued… There are very many within the prison service – whatever function they work in and whoever employs them – who are passionate about the potential of prison to make a difference and their role within this. But too often we again rely on exceptionalism; the heroic officer or governor who does not ask permission in trying to make a difference to others. We would argue that permission needs to be signalled by our political leaders and for all of those involved in prisons – including prisoners, their families and communities – to be the architects of reform.


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