There is more than one cycle that needs to be broken.

Cameron’s Prisons Speech (8 February 2016):

David Cameron devoted over 5000 words to the subject of prisons in a major speech earlier this week. It has been heralded by Downing Street as the first speech on prisons by a serving Prime Minister for over 20 years.

His advisers and spokesmen appear to have had John Major (Conservative Prime Minister from 1990-1997) in mind as the last PM to have given a flagship prisons speech. There is no comparable speech, Major solely devoted to prisons but his ‘back to basics speech’ for the 1993 Tory party conference included this observation:

“We have tried being understanding. We have tried persuasion. Madam President, it hasn't worked. I know criminals are a problem in a cell but they're much more of a problem on the street. And policy must be dictated by the needs of justice, not by the number of prison places we happen to have available on any given day. If someone belongs in prison, when that is where they should be and that's why we're building more prisons. Better the guilty behind bars than the innocent penned in at home…

Here too it's back to basics. For some, punishment seems to be a dirty word. Well, you'll find it in my dictionary and I strongly suspect that it's in yours.”

Cameron’s speech includes what must be a deliberate echo of his predecessor’s:

“For me, punishment – that deprivation of liberty – is not a dirty word.”

But he implicitly rejects Major’s suggestion that understanding doesn’t work:

“..behind these numbers, we have human beings. Children who felt the raw pain of abandonment at a young age – pain that never goes away. Young people who were abused physically by those they trusted most – with violence and fear often devastating the sanctuary of home. Kids who never had proper discipline and so never learnt the virtues of delayed gratification or impulse control. Arriving at school already far behind, and the frustrations of illiteracy or maybe dyslexia leading to bravado, misbehaviour and exclusion…

...cutting reoffending is just a pipe dream unless we truly understand the turmoil and the trauma that define the lives of so many who have ended up in prison.”

This is a pretty accurate description of the back stories of many of the prisoners I have encountered during the last twenty years (a significant number have also been abused sexually). I have acted for hundreds of prisoners who have survived horrific neglect and mistreatment as children. Some of their stories closely resemble the kind of child abuse scandals which have led to public enquiries, prosecutions and anxious, extended media commentaries.

Another common theme I have witnessed amongst the majority of prisoners I have acted for is a desire to stop causing pain to others and to make something better of their lives. Turning these aspirations into realities is clearly something which appeals to Michael Gove. His first speech as Justice Secretary quoted Winston Churchill’s lyrical and humane invocation to look for the treasure in the heart of every man.

Spending any kind of time visiting prisons or communicating with prisoners leaves you with a real appreciation of quite how hard it is to find that treasure. As a prisoner you do not usually have very much freedom or responsibility to act. Your ability to form and maintain positive and meaningful relationships is very limited. The potential for grievances to arise and then to fester is very strong. You do not feel safe or secure.

There is a marked change in tone in how Cameron and Gove are talking about prisoners from that major Major speech. This might be considered politically risky given that Cameron is likely to be battling with right wing tabloids on the European front over the next few months.

In this context he should be given the benefit of the doubt that his speech marks a genuine commitment to prison reform. There are plenty of sensible ideas and proposals in the speech. I will examine some of them in more detail in later pieces. I want to focus in two blogs on what I see as the two key obstacles to change.


Cameron has been consistent in his theme of 'breaking the cycle' of reoffending. It was the title of a Green Paper in 2010 and the same phrase is scattered throughout his recent speech.

There is another cycle that he will need to break if he is to make any meaningful progress. There is a repetitive dance which politicians and media have been doing for considerably more than twenty years which has resulted in year or year rises in the prison population. It has increased by over 100% in 20 years; from 41800 in 1993 to 86000 in 2013. It has remained relatively stable since, probably because there are no spaces left. During the same period the number of recalls has increased by over fifty-five times. There has been a ten percent increase in the number of prisoners serving indeterminate or life sentences; they now make up nearly 20% of the prison population.

The Labour years were marked by a determination by successive Home and Justice Secretaries to show that they were not soft on crime. They deliberately courted tabloid newspapers to establish their credentials as tough sentencers. In the first nine years of Tony Blair’s term as Prime Minister there were more than 3000 new criminal offences created. The scope of offences attracting indeterminate sentences was massively expanded by the implementation of the imprisonment for public protection sentence in 2005.

Politicians have been led by the punitive clamour of tabloid newspapers to ignore the very clear evidence that prison does not work to reduce reoffending for the majority of people who end up in prison. The most recent Ministry of Justice Summary of Evidence indicates that short term prison sentences are less effective than community penalties in reducing reoffending. The desire to keep the press on side has killed off meaningful prison reform for generations.

Cameron and Gove have both recognized that our reliance on incarceration is unsustainable and that something has to change:

“I think politicians from all sides of the political spectrum are starting to realise the diminishing returns from ever higher levels of incarceration. For a start, under this Government we’ve already cut crime by around twenty-five percent in the last five years while keeping the prison population largely flat. And the truth is that simply warehousing ever more prisoners is not financially sustainable, nor is it necessarily the most cost-effective way of cutting crime.”

The real test will come when the next high profile crime incident takes place. The response to individual dreadful acts has consistently been to call for more punitive sentences - not just for that individual perpetrator but across the board.

No politician wants to have to justify prison reform policies in the face of a public outcry over a terrible murder. But they may have to do so if the tide is really to turn.

This is what politicians are supposed to be for - to take measured, evidence-based decisions in the public interest. They have to lead. They have to be willing to challenge or ignore loud voices with different agendas. Gove and Cameron will need to be immune to these pressures if they are to make progress where others have floundered.

The goals which they have set themselves will fail unless the prison population is reduced significantly. There will not be an amnesty or a mass release of serving prisoners. Instead, sentencers will have to be supported and encouraged to stop sending people to prison who do not need to be detained to protect the public from harm. The level of recalls to prison needs to come down dramatically. Unsustainable numbers of prisoners are returned to prison for technical or non-dangerous licence breaches. The Parole Board need to develop more effective ways of getting through cases and releasing people who can be released safely.

Cameron refers within his speech to three categories of prisoners for whom much more could be done far more quickly:

Female Prisoners

The female prison population is a fraction of the male population but we still incarcerate nearly 4000 women in traditional prison settings.

Baroness Corston’s report on vulnerable women in custody is nine years old next month. In July of 2013 the Justice Select Committee reviewed progress made since the report was published, lamented the loss of momentum and commented:

“Prison is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with many women offenders who do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety. We revisited Baroness Corston’s suggestion that those women who have committed serious offences should be held in smaller, more dispersed, custodial units. Having considered this carefully we recommend a gradual reconfiguration of the female custodial estate, coupled with a significant increase in the use of residential alternatives to custody as well as the maintenance of the network of women’s centres, as these are likely to be more effective, and cheaper in the long-run, than short custodial sentences”.

Cameron’s speech focuses only on women with babies. Why only babies? Children who feel the “raw pain of abandonment at a young age” include those of mothers sent to prison. Barnardos research on the impact on children of parental imprisonment concluded:

“There is a strong association between parental imprisonment and adverse outcomes for children. The children of prisoners are about three times more at risk than their peers of committing antisocial or delinquent behaviour, and more than twice as likely to have mental health problems during their life courseSixty-five per cent of boys with a convicted parent go on to offend. These children undoubtedly constitute a group ‘at risk’. By failing to buffer the impact of parental imprisonment on children, we are failing to break the cycle – not only of offending behaviour, but of a whole spectrum of poor outcomes.”

Many female prisoners are victims of cycles of domestic violence and other abuse. Prison does very little to break these cycles, particulalrly for short-term prisoners.

Cameron’s speech contains nothing about reconfiguring the female custodial estate or residential alternatives to custody. If this is not addressed in the forthcoming Prisons Bill, it will be years before the opportunity presents itself again.

Mentally ill and Learning Disabled Prisoners

There are a very significant, but unquantified cohort of prisoners with serious mental illnesses and profound learning disabilities.

Lord Bradley’s Review of People with Mental Health Problems and Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Justice System was published seven years ago.

The section on prisons included several sensible recommendations which have still not been adequately implemented. It is revealing that there are no reliable or even close to reliable official statistics on the numbers of prisoners with diagnosed mental illnesses or learning disabilities. The Bradley report advocated that an evaluation of the prison health screen should be undertaken in order to improve the identification of mental health problems at reception into prison and that urgent consideration should be given to the inclusion of the identification of learning disabilities as part of this screen.

It also recommended awareness training for all prison officers on mental health and learning disabilities. I have witnessed first-hand the distance between these recommendations and the reality inside many prisons. To give one example - I acted for an IPP prisoner who I met for the first time after he had already served the whole of the minimum term set when he was sentenced. He had absolutely no idea that his sentence meant that he would never be released unless he was able to persuade the Parole Board that he no longer posed a risk of serious harm to other people. It was obvious to me within a minute or so of our first meeting that he had a serious learning disability. This had not been highlighted in his prison reports and there was no sensible plan for him to progress to his release. He was an irritation to prison officers and other inmates and did not have the capacity to understand even an adapted version of a sex offender treatment programme.

It took over four years and a great deal of haranguing and threatened litigation on my part until the disparate agencies responsible for him began working together to provide him with the means to get out of prison and access the skilled treatment and support he needed in the community.

There needs to be a real and sustained commitment to diverting the mentally ill and those with significant learning disabilities away from prison and providing them with the skilled care and treatment they need in more suitable environments than overcrowded and violent prisons. This must be treated as an absolute priority and not a long term aspiration. It should not have to wait for a lawyer threatening or bringing a judicial review at public expense. It will require cooperation between agencies and necessary resources (of which more later) but the starting point has to be a recognition that it is a shared and urgent responsibility.


There are around 1000 children in custody.

The outgoing prisons inspector Nick Hardwick has plenty of first-hand experience of visiting prisons for children. He concluded in a recent article:

“If I could, I would bear down on the juvenile estate, because these are the buildings that are least fit for purpose. Children should be held in much smaller, more caring places…”

A terribly stark reminder of the potential consequences of inaction in these areas was provided by the tragic suicide of Sarah Reed at HMP Holloway a week ago. Two years ago the charity Inquest provided a harrowing summary of the events which led to the suicide of 17 year old Jake Hardy at Hindley Young Offenders Institution which asked:

“How many more times do inquests have to report on children dying in prisons that are rife with bullying, physical restraint and self harm, and where there are failures to protect the lives of children in its care? The imprisonment of children is simply wrong. The preventable death of a child in the custody of the state should be a national scandal, prompting the government into decisive action. Instead we are met with a calculated institutional indifference, with a refusal to acknowledge what is being done to our most vulnerable children in our name. No doubt we will hear the repeated and empty words that lessons will be learned.”

It is extremely likely that there will be a serious offence committed by a woman, a child or someone who is mentally ill at sometime in the near future while Gove and Cameron are still in power. The pain that this will cause will be immense and heartbreaking. How Gove and Cameron respond when this happens and the understandable storm erupts will be a good indication of whether the cycle really is starting to break.

#Cameron #Prisons #speech #prisonreform #Gove #Reducingreoffending #prisoners

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