On the stopping train to prison reform

Ben Summerskill, Director at the Criminal Justice Alliance - 3 March 2017

After 14 months of enthralling high-wire performances by an all-singing all-dancing Secretary of State for Justice, Liz Truss’s tenure in the role has thus far seemed to many to be muted in comparison. She evidently lacks her predecessor’s sense of absolute certainty about what should be done. (However absolute certainty, as any student of Chris Grayling’s stewardship of the role will note, does not always guarantee better outcomes.)

With too much of a prison population consigned to conditions that might have been deliberately designed to obstruct, rather than promote, their rehabilitation wider public engagement in the issue of reform seems as distant as ever. So would last week’s publication of a Prisons & Courts Bill move the needle of public interest?

Thus far it appears to have made little difference. Partly that will have been because bits of the Bill – powers to jam mobile phones, for example – had already been well, and repeatedly, trailed in advance. Partly that will be because enshrining in law a duty on prisons to reform (welcome though such a commitment is) appears almost quixotic when many don’t have the capacity day after day to offer inmates the most rudimentary levels of education or training.

Some indifference might be because elements of the announcement preceding the Bill – overdue delegation to governors of some responsibilities and the publication of league tables of prison effectiveness – seem managerial and technocratic, even if sensible.

Perhaps too much public discussion about prisons is rarefied and policy-focused. My view is that if we had any other industry in the country where half the products got returned to the factory – worse than British Leyland in its 1970s heyday – the situation would have been denounced as a national embarrassment years ago.

Most victims, whose voices are still so often unheard, are clear we should be ensuring that perpetrators don’t reoffend, thus simply creating more future victims. And most victims also recognise that rehabilitation won’t be achieved simply by locking people up for longer in Victorian conditions.

So we welcome many parts of the Bill. We simply regret that it seems to be a stopping train, rather than an InterCity, on the track to meaningful reform.

The CJA’s mini-briefing on the Prisons and Courts Bill is here and you can read the full Bill here.