Prison shake-up "won’t tackle funding gap and overcrowding", Ministry of Justice warned

Written by Jim Dunton on 19 May 2016 in News

Experts question the ability of Queen’s Speech centrepiece to deal with system's core problems

Proposals to create “reform prisons” and pioneer new offender management opportunities such as evening-only incarceration are unlikely to tackle the fundamental problems faced by the UK penal system, experts have cautioned.

Justice secretary Michael Gove’s Prisons Bill was the standout element of this week’s Queen’s Speech, and is trailed as the “biggest shake-up of the prisons system since Victorian times”. 

At its heart is the creation of  “reform prisons”, in which governors will have increased freedoms to generate income, manage finances, agree external contracts and take control of education and training opportunities.

Queen’s Speech to feature “long-needed” prison reforms
Giving prisons more freedom is the right move – but the MoJ needs to sharpen its scrutiny

In addition to naming six current prisons where the reforms will be rolled out first, the government said the agenda would be accompanied by a “new regime of transparency”, with comparable statistics to be published for each prison on reoffending, employment rates on release, violence, and self-harm.

While prison reform commentators welcomed the further empowerment of governors, they questioned whether that empowerment would go far enough, and queried governors’ abilities to deal with overcrowding levels and funding cuts.

Earlier this week, MPs on the Justice Select Committee produced a report highlighting rising levels of assaults and suicides within the nation’s prisons, and underscoring that prison officer headcount was declining at a time when inmate numbers were increasing.

Committee chair Bob Neill said the prison service faced a “serious and deep-rooted issue of staff retention” that was neither understood nor being addressed, and that the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service needed to produce an action plan showing how they would deal with all issues.

Reacting to the Queen’s Speech announcement, prison reform commentator Rob Allen questioned whether the reform prisons would be protected from “population pressures”. He said five of the six future reform prisons identified by Gove had been overcrowded at the end of last month, with one – HMP Wandsworth – operating at 169% capacity.

"The first question, therefore, is whether it will be business as usual in terms of the numbers prisoners in the reform prisons or will they be insulated from some of the population pressures - something which would of course place greater strain on other parts of the system,” he said.

Allen added that while governors would be given greater control over their budgets, it was less clear that this funding would be increased.

“There may be an argument for reallocating some of the HQ resources to them if they are making less call upon central services,” he said. 

“But more favourable resourcing will need to be taken into account in assessing changes in performance.”

Frances Crook, chief executive of campaign group the Howard League for Penal Reform, said there was no public service currently in such disarray as prisons, and said the need for change was urgent.
“More autonomy for governors, improvements to education and a more sensible approach to release on temporary licence are all steps in the right direction,” she said.

“Ultimately, the success of these reforms will depend on whether the government introduces positive measures to tackle overcrowding by driving down prison numbers.”

Crook was less impressed with the suggestion of greater use of monitored day release for prisoners, potentially allowing them to maintain jobs at the same time as serving sentences with a custodial element.

“After the embarrassing disasters with tagging by private security companies, we should look to more creative ways to ease people into the community safely,” she said.

Charlotte Pickles, deputy director at think tank Reform, said the prisons announcement needed to be viewed as “just the first step” to a much more devolved offender management system.

“As Reform argued in a paper out last month, greater autonomy must also be matched with transparent accountability,” she told CSW.

“Measures of prison performance available today are inadequate – the government must act quickly to improve these.”

The Ministry of Justice said that in addition to HMP Wandsworth, the other institutions that would become reform prisons were: HMP Holme House; HMP Kirklevington Grange; HMP Coldingley; HMP High Down; and HMP Ranby.

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Jim Dunton
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