The pressing need for prison reform

Monday 29th May 2017




Bob Neill, Chair of the Justice Select Committee and Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst
Over the past year, we have witnessed a consensus begin to form that the ongoing, endemic and genuine crisis across our prison estate must be addressed. A breaking point has been reached, and root and branch transformative change is urgently required to avert a systemic failure on our watch.

The case for reform is irrefutable, and while welcome measures are currently making their way through the House of Commons in the Prisons and Courts Bill, the Government must seize this opportunity with both hands, taking advantage of the recent appetite for change to ensure lasting improvements are made. To those who remain unconvinced that a shake-up is needed, or, in some cases, that those who have done wrong deserve better conditions, Ministers must set out a robust, persuasive argument that explains why reform is mutually beneficial to offenders, prison officers and the wider taxpayer.

The prison service, of course, plays a vital role in keeping us safe from those who pose a risk to public safety, but it is also responsible for rehabilitating some of Britain’s most vulnerable individuals, many of whom have had a disruptive childhood, suffer from mental ill health and have a history of severe alcohol or drug dependency.

Think tanks, the media, and, I hope, the Justice Committee, have shone a spotlight on a system that can no longer cope. Take, as an example, HMP Featherstone, which was recently subject to an unannounced inspection. The authorities found “too many prisoners living in fear”, with some “remaining isolated for several months”. Not enough was being done to understand the nature and causes of the very high levels of violence, and one in five prisoners said they had developed a drug problem while serving time.

Sadly, those could have been the findings of an inspection at any one of Britain’s prisons. There is a need to punish those who do wrong and cause injury, true, but as the Prisons and Courts Bill will formally recognise for the first time, rehabilitation must be the key purpose of every custodial sentence. To achieve that aim, you need a conducive environment for reform.

Until we get away from a system that routinely confines prisoners in overcrowded cells for 23 hours a day, is rocked by shocking, ever-deteriorating levels of violence and self-harm – in which someone takes their own life every three days – and until we tackle the void in meaningful education and support the treatment of mental health needs, it is impossible to see how that goal is attainable. Very few could stay on the straight and narrow in such conditions, let alone be expected to forge a second chance for themselves.

The State, on our behalf, is ultimately responsible for the welfare of these people. A prison service that cannot protect those in its custody is not only fundamentally broken, but also flawed in rehabilitating those whose care it is charged with. The moral case for reform is compelling.

There are, of course, two sides to this argument, and I hope the Government will appeal to the pragmatism of those who still doubt the worthiness of this cause. Although prisons are necessary, we must recognise that they are a hugely expensive intervention and that their benefits are not always certain, particularly for those serving short sentences. The incarceration of the average prisoner costs the taxpayer upwards of £40,000 every year, and with nearly half of adult prisoners reoffending within one year of release, none of us are getting value for money. That is something a number of our international counterparts have already cottoned on to, and we would do well to follow their lead.

We know what needs to be done. Reduce the prison population by looking at alternatives to custodial sentences in less serious cases; recruit more staff and, importantly, retain experienced officers; reform the prison estate to ensure it remains fit for purpose; and make education and training opportunities central, providing support to help offenders find employment and housing once released.

The evidence is there to support a bold, ambitious plan, and I believe the team at the Ministry of Justice do genuinely understand this. They must now have the courage, nous and determination to see it through.

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