David Cameron devoted over 5000 words to the subject of prisons in a major speech last week. Prison Governors featured heavily in Cameron’s speech. They are to be given far greater autonomy and power to change regimes within the prisons for which they have responsibility. The Press Release from the Prison Governors Association in immediate response to Cameron’s speech provided a stark reminder of the second cycle which will need to be broken; the year on year reduction in resourcing of prisons:
“The stripping out of resources, including severe staffing reductions, has been the policy of the Government and of the senior management within the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) for many years now.
Almost every function within our prisons has been centralised, from choosing who provides education and health to who changes the lights. The number of staff, including governors, has been drastically reduced yet at the same time the prisoner population has increased. This has led to an increase in the workloads of all staff, increasing stress levels and sickness rates, which has further exacerbated the problem. There has also been an increase, beyond acceptable levels, in violence, self-harm, self-inflicted deaths and the loss of good order. However, these failures cannot be laid at the doorstep of hardworking and overstretched staff who are doing their best to maintain an effective service.”
The message from prison governors that they are currently struggling to meet the most basic of requirements – keeping prisoners and staff safe – does not provide confidence that they will be able to deliver the kind of improvements in rehabilitation to which Cameron aspires any time soon.
There is a resourcing issue which his speech does not really address; the impact of the huge increase in indeterminate sentenced prisoners who now make up around 20% of the total prison population. There are 4614 prisoners still serving indefinite Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences despite the sentence being abolished nearly four years ago. There are another 7400 life sentenced prisoners. None of these prisoners have a release date and can only be released by the Parole Board. They need to be able to provide evidence that their risk of harming people has reduced significantly.
The IPP sentence was introduced by the Labour government in 2005. Prior to that, indeterminate (life) sentences were reserved for the most serious sexual and violent offences. The original IPP sentences could be given for a far wider range of offences. All indeterminate sentences have a ‘tariff’ or minimum term set by the sentencing judge which is calculated by a sentencing guideline formula. The tariffs for IPP sentences were often very short – they could be as short as a month and were often between a year or two. This created the ludicrous situation in which people were sent to prison because they were deemed to be dangerous then came before the Parole Board a few months later hoping to persuade them that they were now rehabilitated and could be released.
The impact of the IPP sentence should have been predictable. There is a long, staged process that indeterminate sentenced prisoners will need to go through before they have a reasonable chance of securing their release. They usually need to have completed more than one intensive rehabilitation (‘offending behaviour’) programme. They need to show that they have understood their behavior and developed strategies to change. Standard programmes will not work for a sizeable number of prisoners with learning disabilities or difficulties and alternatives will need to be provided.
After completing programmes prisoners will often need to be tested in less secure conditions and to have developed sensible release plans which manage their risk of reoffending. Good interventions are expensive and time-consuming. The demand for these has massively outweighed the supply for the last ten years.
Successive governments have had to defend countless judicial reviews challenging the lack of rehabilitation opportunities for prisoners. The European Court of Human Rights delivered its judgment on the latest of these (Kaiyam and others v United Kingdom) a couple of weeks ago. It got very little press attention - the government and not the prisoners won - but the problem which the case (and several others like it) demonstrate is highly relevant to the prison reform debate. There are still huge waiting lists for programmes. Two of the prisoners bringing the claim had waited between three and four years for a place on the programme they were told was essential rehabilitation work for them.
The bottlenecks that this creates in the system are serious and damaging. The average annual cost of keeping someone in prison is around £36000. There is a significant cost attached to the cycle of Parole Board hearings for prisoners who cannot access courses. The Parole Board has been unable to provide hearings on time for many hundreds of prisoners. In many cases this is a breach of their human rights and the Board is having to pay compensation to them. The litigation which the government has to defend is expensive and time-consuming.
This all has a knock-on impact on shorter-term prisoners too. They might benefit from rehabilitation opportunities but prisoners who cannot get out of prison unless they have successfully completed courses or therapeutic work will usually be prioritised over prisoners with fixed release dates who will be released regardless.
Resources outside prisons also need to support the kind of painstaking and patient work which is required to - in Cameron's words - "find diamonds in the rough and help them shine". It is obvious but worth stating that you should not need to be in prison to get help with education, training, relationships and serious psychological problems.
The best, well-funded prison regimes can provide great support for prisoners. The problem is that for many it is very late in the day. A society which really wants to reduce reoffending has to provide those opportunities to those who most need them in the community before they commit serious offences. It also needs to be able to build on progress after prisoners are released. This is not easy when vital services have been stripped back.
Prisons who are being measured on reoffending outcomes have no control over what happens in the community once someone is released. There needs to be strong, stable links between prisons and the community to which prisoners are released to. These are not in place to the extent to which they are needed. They require resources which are not available in the present climate.
Cameron was careful to praise Gove's much maligned predecessor Chris Grayling for his Transforming Rehabilitation project which has broken up the Probation Service and introduced the private and third sector into the business of supervising prisoners in the community. There is absolutely no evidence yet that this has been a success. There is a lot of evidence that it has created a great deal of disruption, uncertainty and confusion. It is a very costly experiment. We will only know whether it has made any real improvement if inspections and analysis of the work of Community Rehabilitation Companies are independent, robust and intelligent. This will take time. And resources.
There was an interesting report published recently by the Institute for Public Policy Research which makes a compelling case for far greater devolved control of prisons and probation. It summarises the ‘double-bind’ that currently exists and prevents those who are really affected by cycles of reoffending being able to do much about it:
“..there is an inherent flaw in our criminal justice system: the people who could act to reduce offending have neither the financial power nor the incentive to do so. The reason for this is that many of the services and agencies that could act to reduce offending are organised and controlled at the local level, whereas the budget for prison places is held by central government. The challenge is therefore to ‘unfreeze’ the resources that are locked up in the prison system, and ensure that local services and agencies are enabled and incentivised to use those resources to both prevent crime and develop alternatives to custody.
At the moment, incentives work in precisely the opposite direction: if a local authority were to invest in high-quality services that kept people out of prison, the financial benefits would accrue to the Ministry of Justice (because its expenditure on prisons would fall as a result), while the local authority would end up with more people using community services, which are on their books. Economists in the US have described this as a classic problem of a ‘common pool resource’, in that local judges can send defendants to prison ‘because it does not cost them anything’
This could fit with Cameron's instincts to move away from central control but would require a greater trust in local government than he has thus far demonstrated. It would also be a long way off as the current community rehabilitation contracts are locked in for at least seven years.
There is a stark choice in the immediate future. Either more resources are made available to improve conditions in prisons, increase staffing ratios and fund essential rehabilitation work or the prison population has to start to come down. There is a serious debate about this going on outside Westminster – in Scotland. The Scottish government has already introduced a presumption against prison sentences of three months or less. There is a public consultation asking whether this period should be extended to six, nine or twelve months. The Scottish Justice Minister has described the impact that this could have:
“If the presumption was to be increased then it will help to reduce the churn of those who get those short sort of six-month sentences and the level of resource that takes up within our prison system, which will free up that resource to be used much more effectively.”
People who work in prisons and with prisoners know that rehabilitation is a complex and expensive task. It requires intelligently led, coordinated services for which the supply can meet the demand. It will not thrive in environments which are in a perpetual state of crisis and transition. Good ideas and compassionate words will not be enough. Breaking the cycle of underfunding is an essential component of prison reform. Without it Cameron's weighty prisons speech will be regarded as a historical curiosity and little else.