The Conservative Party conference is rarely the arena in which progressive criminal justice policies are trailed. Tory Ministers know that they are unlikely to receive that elusive conference buzz from a speech about improving life chances for prisoners. The party faithful are usually more appreciative of policy proposals which fit into a narrative of ‘toughness’.
The announcement from Liz Truss that a campaign is to be launched to recruit ex-armed forces staff as prison officers should be viewed with this in mind:
“Who better to instil the virtues of discipline? Who better to show what you can achieve in life with courage and integrity? They will help our prison officers lead the change. Safety on our street and safety in our jails – that is the policy of this government.”
Under-staffing in prisons is a serious and enduring problem. The government’s prison reform proposals will fail unless there are sufficient staff with appropriate skills and expertise to make them work. The austerity programme which has been pursued for the past six years led to a significant drop in prison officer numbers.
The Ministry of Justice has recognised the dangers inherent in under-staffing and has sought to recruit more officers. However, the retention rates are so poor that the recruitment drive has not made any serious impact.
Prisons are unsafe places. They do not have to be. At the moment, they are seriously overcrowded and contain a very significant number of prisoners with mental health problems, drug problems and a variety of challenging behaviours.
The rapid decline in officer numbers has made prison regimes even more unfit for their purpose and has created an environment in which bullying, violence, despair, self-harm and suicides are rife.
The prison reform agenda is aspirational. It is absolutely meaningless while a siege mentality exists in which a realistic aim is simply to try to keep prisoners alive and prevent them from hurting one another.
Two inquests were held last month into the deaths of two very young men at Glen Parva. The governor of Glen Parva, Alison Clarke, told the jury that a lack of resources from the MoJ prevented her staff from being able to adequately protect prisoners at risk of suicide and self-harm. The jury concluded that inadequate steps had been taken to protect one of the young men from ongoing bullying, that risk assessments were inadequate and the delay in calling for an emergency response and delay in assisting paramedics to reach the scene contributed to his death.
A review by Lord Harris, commissioned by the government into self-inflicted deaths in custody of 18 to 24-year-olds, was published last year. It made 108 recommendations including a greater focus on rehabilitation, more moves to tackle bullying and allowing inmates to spend at least eight hours a day outside of their cells. It concluded that staff shortages were a key factor contributing to suicides in custody.
In the aftermath of the Glen Parva inquests, Lord Harris concluded:
“Our central recommendations in the review have, in effect, been ignored by the Prison Service.”
Good prison officers have a range of skills, commensurate with the difficulty of their role. The best prison staff are inspirational, motivated and committed to supporting prisoners to overcome the challenges which they face. They earn the respect and cooperation of prisoners. They should be valued and remunerated accordingly.
HMPS offers a national starting salary of £20,545. Prison officer entry level training consists of a 10-week training course. Is this going to be an attractive prospect for ex-servicemen?
The armed forces do a very different job in environments which do not or at least should not resemble a modern prison. There will be some ex-servicemen who will make fine prison officers because of their individual personalities and skill-sets. There will be others who are not suited to the role at all. The implicit message that what is needed in prisons is a good, old-fashioned dose of discipline and that sending in the servicemen will bring order to our broken prison system is both depressing and retrograde.
It is encouraging that Liz Truss has recognised that resources are needed if prison reform is to have any future at all. The elephant in the corner, however, remains the prison population. It has risen each week for the past month; by over 500 in the last fortnight.
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.
Successive justice secretaries have sidestepped the issue of prison population and the impact that this has on the prospects for rehabilitation and the reduction of re-offending.
They have taken a passive approach to this, confining the role of their department to implementing sentences imposed by courts and declining to take responsibility for any role in sentencing policy and practice. Although the criminal justice system is set up to implement the sentences imposed independently by the courts, government and parliament have a very clear role in devising and reforming sentencing.
An honest and open debate about this issue is occurring in Scotland but there is no sign of this south of the border. The Scottish government has already introduced a presumption against prison sentences of three months or less. There has been a public consultation asking whether this period should be extended to six, nine or twelve months.
The Scottish Justice Minister 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.”
If it is possible for the Scottish population to have a sensible, informed discussion about prison sentencing, why should this not be possible in the rest of the United Kingdom?
Prison reform needs far more well-trained, skilled prison officers from a variety of backgrounds. It also needs fewer prisoners.