24 February 2021

Covid offers a golden chance to reset our failing prisons

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Locked up in Lockdown has been something of a blessing in disguise for our beleaguered prison service. Before April last year, when draconian Covid restrictions froze regimes and prisoners in place, most metrics of decency, order and control were in freefall. Extremely high rates of assault against front line staff sent huge numbers of hastily and expensively recruited officers scurrying back through the gates to safer jobs before they were even out of probation.

But Covid-19 has allowed officials the latitude to so severely restrict prisoner movement that the latest statistics show a significant decrease in most types of violence in prison, with the important exception of self-harm. The statisticians caution against using these figures for comparison, acknowledging that banged up prisoners not having access to staff or other cons to beat is hardly a measure of a sustained increase in safety. There has been a rare accord between employer and unions in this unprecedented restriction on prisoner movement and access to services. But there has been a high price to pay and one we should all care about.

It’s a fair bet that our prison authorities will see the experience of lockdown as a template for avoiding the shaming chaos of contemporary prison life. Anyone watching the rash of prison documentaries that were made over the last couple of years in establishments such as Belmarsh, Wandsworth, Durham and Northumberland will understand that the concept of rehabilitation is meaningless in places awash with violence, indolence and despair. Most of these fly-on-the-wall programmes were filmed in local prisons where what I call ‘stupid custody’ is concentrated, with people serving serial short sentences in places that seem almost designed to make them worse on release.

These prisons are crying out for order and control – the twin foundations of hope for people to be able to turn their lives around and stop victimising the taxpayers who foot the bill for a dystopian exercise in managed failure. It is darkly amusing to hear sentiments I have expressed for years now being fed back to me by prison senior officials. They have finally learned (with some muscular political encouragement, I suspect) that taking the knee or abstract theorising over fashionable issues just isn’t buttering the bread.

Bringing back control

But there’s a great deal more to do than changing the mood music.

In 2019, I co-authored a manifesto for prison safety and reform called ‘Control, Order, Hope’. It contains many striking contributions from prisoners terrified by the disappearance of authority on our prison landings. This doesn’t sit well with some in the prison reform commentariat who simplistically equate order with oppression, when in fact the very opposite is the case. Indeed, the difference between people who have worked in prisons and those who merely theorise about them can be striking.

Calm, controlled establishments with suitable and sufficient numbers of staff confidently in charge could be a game-changer for our woeful reoffending rates. In places where this is the case, often thanks to the leadership qualities of individual Governors, amazing things are possible.

Several key things need to happen in a reset for these exceptions to become transformational.

First, we need drug-free prisons. The illicit drugs economy means many prisons do little more than stack prisoners in a holding pattern for more crime, while getting them addicted to ruinous psychoactive drugs. This economy booms in a literally captive market, with high levels of need and a low-risk/high-return business model. It drives most of the violence and despair that prevents prisoners from focusing on changing their lives. We need to put away the defeatist rhetoric of drugs recovery prisons or drug-free wings and use all the technology at our disposal to create and build on a drug-free prison bridgehead. To do this properly we must also face an unpalatable truth which has been revealed through lockdown – a minority of corrupt staff are helping sustain this instability and must be rooted out.

Secondly, we need to invest in prison leadership that is aligned with what the prison service actually is, or at least should be – a law enforcement agency with a public protection focus. These essential characteristics have become lost in a fog of pious virtue-signalling rhetoric that insists, for example, in calling prisoners ‘residents’ of places often unfit to house livestock. This is a uniformed organisation hollowed out by managerialism and a civilian boss class that is increasingly divorced from the realities faced by officers and prisoners at the sharp end. In the 12 months to the latest HMPPS workforce statistics, the staff headcount in our prisons has reduced by 316 and the HQ headcount has increased by 330. Put simply, we need fewer bean-counters or specialist teams and more officers helping prisoners turn their lives around.

Finally, we need a huge change in the way we deliver education and training to reverse our appalling reconviction rates and the associated costs, estimated by the Ministry of Justice at over £18bn a year. As it stands, prisoner education is a catastrophe, with the imposition of highly bureaucratic framework contracts still based on cost rather than quality. What ought to be central to a culture of change and potential through learning is side-lined and starved of funds.

Education has a greater role to play than fitting people for employment, as crucial as that is. Teaching people to think critically through imaginative use of art or literature might be just as important to stopping future victims as getting a job. But in any case, we won’t get people into sustainable, long term employment with its huge benefits if we don’t start paying prisoners the minimum wage, requiring them to contribute to their keep, save for release and compensate victims. Even that won’t cut it without aligning training with the huge infrastructure needs the country still has, despite the pandemic. Building back with offenders will transform the country and transform communities blighted with worklessness and incivility. We need a new generation of what I call ‘enterprise prisons’ based around discovering and redirecting the potential of some of the most creative people I’ve ever met, if only their talents were used for good.

There are many more things for the prison service to focus on as the country – and the cell doors – open again, but in my view these are the priorities.

It would be unfair and wrong not to recognise the decisive action taken by the prisons service, in extremely challenging circumstances, to limit the spread of Covid. Decimated regimes and isolated prisoners cannot be the new inheritance, however. Brutalising prisoners turns out brutes. That’s no good for them or the people they are very likely to victimise on release as a result. It’s no good for society when we miss the chance to turn people from feckless predators into responsible stakeholders in our communities.

Now the derangement of Covid-19 is finally lifting we have a golden opportunity for an intelligent reset in our troubled prisons. Let us hope it is taken.

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Professor Ian Acheson is a former prison officer and Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.