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Prison staff the key to penal reform
RSA Future Prison report due out at end of October expected to argue that empowering front line prison staff is key to developing a more rehabilitative system.

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Hobson’s choice

As we wait to hear how or even whether new Justice Secretary Liz Truss is going to move forward with her predecessor Michael Gove’s prison reform plans — she addresses the Conservative Party conference this Tuesday 4th October at 11:30 a.m. — a number of commentators and pressure groups have argued that we should be focusing on making our prisons safe again rather than a longer term aspiration to make them better places (and ones which are used less frequently).

They argue that the priority should be increasing staffing levels and reducing the prison population (this second aspiration seems politically unlikely in the short-term).

Given the appalling rise in murders, general violence and suicides in prison, this seems a reasonable position to take.

But do we really have to choose between having safe prisons and rehabilitative ones?


Future Prison

As regular readers will know, the RSA has been engaged in a far-ranging project to develop a blueprint for a more rehabilitative prison system.

The final report comes out at the end of this month (October 2016) and will argue strongly that prison staff must be at the heart of prison reform and that the need to improve the capacity and capability of the prison service should be a joint enterprise.

I have to say that I agree.

NOMS has invested huge resources in recruiting prison staff over the last two years to no avail. Large numbers of new prison officers have been recruited. However, working in prison is such a stressful job at the moment and prison officers are so often under-valued that many experienced officers have left the service and many of the new recruits have not stayed long.

A Matter of Conviction

The RSA will publish the final report (entitled a Matter of Conviction) of its Future Prison project at the end of October. The report focuses on the challenges facing prisons and all of its recommendations relate to driving up performance. The project found broad consensus about the impact that the benchmarking process has had with widespread agreement that it increased risk in the prison system and decreased the safety of staff and prisoners.

The report is expected to major on policy changes, including proposals for a more devolved system and to place significant emphasis on workforce reform.

Overall recommendations

The report is expected to make overall recommendations similar to those outlined below:

  • The government must address both capacity and capabilities linked to a programme of systemic change focused on 2020.
  • The MoJ must tackle the acute problem of workforce numbers at the same time as setting out a strategy that ensures new staff are recruited to help drive this.
  • This requires an investment in frontline staff as a matter of urgency, returning to pre-benchmarking levels supported by an assessment of current anomalies in the system and particular regional pressures. The report is expected to set out an estimate on additional funding needed and to include recommendations for significant changes to the national governance and performance regime, including the probation service.
  • Moral leadership: This emphasises the importance of having leaders and a workforce that know and understand the concerns of the people who reside there and – within constraints – seek to empower the population they seek to serve.
  • Commissioning for rehabilitation: Commissioning of key services and goods should be handed down to governors. This will require stronger local commissioning skills with a particular focus on rehabilitative outcomes.
  • Business development and enterprise: Too many employment and enterprise projects in prison are short-term, episodic and short on evidence of outcomes. Prisons leaders need to be supported in developing senior management and staff skills for business planning, enterprise and strategic partnerships.
  • Stakeholder engagement and communications: First, many prisons are very poor at communications both inside and out and this has a profound impact on culture. In part this is a result of the top down nature of the prison system. Second, an integrated approach requires more outward facing place-based approaches.
  • Impact and evidence: greater autonomy and local commissioning will require prison leaders to rely more on evidence and impact.
  • A focus on active citizenship and the theory and practice around rehabilitation, desistance and the importance of the social capital/networks needed to support this.

The future workforce

The report is expected to be particularly strong on the importance of valuing frontline staff and recognising that many staff are committed to rehabilitation and are too rarely encouraged — or even allowed — to work positively with inmates. Key messages include:

  • The current state of play can be divisive with prison staff feeling they have been deskilled as innovation and rehabilitation is outsourced to a range of different players.
  • The reform agenda should go beyond addressing frontline staffing numbers and be based on the development of a Rehabilitative Workforce which will require additional funding and needs to prioritise:
    • A review of the capabilities needed to support individual progression and culture change;
    • Breaking down the barriers that exist between different agencies working ‘within prisons;
    • Supporting ‘home-grown’ innovation, staff empowerment and ownership; and
    • Boosting recruitment, job satisfaction and career planning including transferable skills.
  • Leadership and workforce development should be delivered through a more ambitious model for Newbold Revel – a new Centre of Excellence in Prisons – which would be more akin to the College of Policing, with a mandate to set standards in professional development. Consideration should be given to whether a combined centre could work across prisons and probation.


Liz Truss’ speech should give us an idea of whether the government intends to honour its commitment of prison reform (a centrepiece of this year’s Queen’s Speech), and whether it agrees with the RSA that the best way to tackle the current failings is to engage staff in a vision of a more rehabilitative prison system.

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