It’s possible that there may be a few people who didn’t catch this on Parliament TV yesterday. For those – six things to note from the Lord Chancellor’s detailed responses to questions from the Justice Select Committee about his prison reform plans.
1. He does want to reduce the prison population – just not artificially
A recent interview with the Lord Chancellor in the Guardian suggested that he thought his prison reform programme was not dependent upon reducing the prison population. His answers to the Justice Committee demonstrated that his position on this is more nuanced. He acknowledged that it is easier to pursue rehabilitative activity with a lower population. He does aspire to bring the population down but does not want to do it artificially. This presumably means that he does not favour early release initiatives or explicit changes in sentencing policy.
He did however speak very positively about ‘problem-solving’ courts (a sensible idea becoming more popular in the US), in which judges commit to keeping people out of custody if they engage with specified agencies and in which the cases return to the same judge for periodic review. He also spoke clearly about his desire to think hard about alternatives to custody for sections of the female prison population. He acknowledged that prison is not the best place for people with severe mental health problems and implied that more work would go into diverting mentally ill people from prison. He also referred to reconfiguring the youth custody estate to have a far stronger focus on education than punishment.
2. He may not want to remain in Europe but he is interested in how Germany are doing things
He referred to recent visits to German prisons. He spoke about visiting prisons in Berlin, one in an out-of-town location, designed by a prison governor and an architect, in which the working and visiting facilities were more conducive to a rehabilitative regime. In one of the Berlin prisons three local employers pay the prison for access to the labour of prisoners, these funds are reinvested in facilities for the prison and the employers take on prisoners who have worked for them after their release.
He spoke approvingly of the German model of remand-only prisons. In English and Welsh prisons, prisoners remanded in custody before they have been convicted share prisons with those who have been convicted already. He appeared to approve of the tendency in the German prison system for prisoners to remain in their local prison rather then spending time in a number of different prisons, often some way from their home area.
3. He wants to create a new concept of ‘reform’ prisons and to transform the role of prison governors
In the forthcoming Prison Reform Bill he intends to create free-standing ‘reform’ prisons with a new legal status which will operate independently. These will be in the public not private sector. The intention is that these will resemble academies in the educational system. Governors are to have much more freedom to run their prisons and will be encouraged to innovate. He hinted that ‘super governors’ would be encouraged to lead groups of prisons if they had made a strong difference in one.
The success of this concept will very much depend upon the calibre of governors, their ability to influence the behaviour of their staff and the prisoners for whom they are responsible and, importantly, the level of accountability. Robust, independent inspections and appropriate quality measures will be essential. Careful thought needs to go into this. He spoke about perverse incentives being created by targets which are too rigid. It is also perverse if there are no meaningful consequences for prisons who provide poor and dangerous regimes. There needs to be a mechanism for prisoners to be consulted and listened to about performance and quality measures. Treating prisoners as ‘assets not liabilities’ includes respecting them as service users and not merely passive subjects.
4. He would like to see an increase in release on temporary licence (ROTL)
He spoke about this in the context of maintaining family links. He wanted to see ROTL used to provide prisoners with the opportunity to visit their families as part of their reintegration into society – “there should not be a cliff edge from custody to liberty”. This is eminently sensible. I am not sure if he is aware that this is not something which his predecessor encouraged. Chris Grayling implemented a policy in 2014 (still in existence) that someone who had previously absconded from prison (at any time during their sentence, however long ago) could not go to an open prison or be released on temporary licence – other than in exceptional circumstances. This affected around 500 indeterminate sentenced prisoners. By November of last year the number of successful exceptional circumstances applications was 0.
5. He is not a fan of the current categorisation and allocation system
He also seemed keen on the idea of prisoners remaining in one prison where possible, emphasising the benefits of stability, ‘continuity of care’ and locality. He committed his department to a review of the whole categorisation system.
This is sensible and long-overdue. However, the review must consider the current arrangements for indeterminate sentenced prisoners and the availability of treatment programmes. At the moment one of the reasons prisoners get shunted around is to ‘do a course’. Several key programmes are offered in a small number of locations which leads to long delays, prisoners being located a long way from home and getting very few visits or opportunities for resettlement preparation. Many open prisons are located in remote locations.
The long-established practice of ‘ghosting’ prisoners (moving them to another prison) for security reasons will also need to be challenged. Often the security imperative for moving a prisoner does not stand up to independent scrutiny. It is extremely disruptive and current practice does not adopt a ‘last resort’ mentality.
6. He had nothing at all to say about parole
This may have been a reflection of the questions the Justice Select Committee chose to ask him but it is surprising that he has thus far had nothing to say about the parole system. A significant proportion of prisoners are reliant on the parole system to progress to their release. Around 20% of the prison population are serving indeterminate sentences. This means that they can only leave prison if the Parole Board directs their release. You cannot really talk about prison reform and not think carefully about how the parole system fits into the bigger picture. There is ample scope for a form of ‘problem-solving’ approach within the parole system but the current system is a long way from that.
I have invited the Lord Chancellor to speak about parole at an event later this year. I hope that he accepts the invitation