9 January 2018

How to fix Britain’s prisons: an open letter to David Gauke


Dear Mr Gauke,

Welcome to the Ministry of Justice and congratulations on your appointment. Your track record as an able and talented Treasury minister precedes you and I know the legal community are very pleased that –  finally – a qualified solicitor is at the helm as Lord Chancellor again.

However, many of your immediate challenges will come from the other end of the criminal justice conveyor belt – our damaged and volatile prisons. They are bursting at the seams, and the system seems unable to stop the majority of its charges from becoming hooked on drugs inside, let alone prepared for a useful future on release.

You’ll be briefed upside down by senior leaders from HMPPS – the state prison service –  of course. It’s worth noting that the same people explaining the current penal system were largely in post and presided over the catastrophic decline of virtually every metric of decency, humanity and safety in custody in modern times without the slightest impact on their careers or, with the honourable exception of Bob Neil MP and his Justice Select Committee, any accountability.

To be fair, this order and control crisis has evolved in lockstep with the deliberate stripping away of thousands of experienced staff as part of what was surely the government’s most ill-conceived and poorly executed austerity strategy, executed  by supine managerialists who appeared to jump to your colleague Chris Grayling’s ruinous cuts, now haunting the service, with barely a squeak of dissent.

It’s really good that you have Rory Stewart on your team. I hope he brings his experience to bear on the burgeoning problem of Islamist extremism in prisons. The system I surveyed in 2016 in my independent review of the phenomenon in prisons and probation was not fit for purpose. The response of senior managers in HMPPS was so paralysed by incompetence and political correctness that I used the term institutional timidity to describe the culture there.

I suspect neither you nor Mr Stewart will have the time or inclination to put up with this. You ought to be clear on what progress has been made on my 69 recommendations, which ranged far beyond the widely trailed adoption of separation units for hardline hate preachers. By the way, given his diplomatic experience in conflict zones, Mr Stewart will know a bullshitter when he sees one, which can only be good news when he meets the people who are running the wreckage of our probation system.

You may well have some prior knowledge of the present reality of custody – after all your constituency contains HMP The Mount, scene of two days of rioting in late July last year – or to use MoJ-speak, “minor disturbances brought quickly under control”. Inexplicably, no charges have been brought against any of the armed perpetrators who attacked officers with pool balls and took over wings.

On the second day of the disturbance at HMP Mount, a riot erupted at another establishment in Wiltshire, HMP Erlestoke, which I was once temporarily in charge of. This level of violence and disorder would have been completely inconceivable in my day. In both establishments the pattern preceding horrific disorder was the same and had been described by Independent Monitoring Boards and Her Majesty’s inspector: staff shortages, freely available drugs, escalating violence.

Here’s the good news you may not be hearing from some of the official apologists for the state of our feral jail system: the situation is neither inevitable or unfixable. As usual it will take three basic ingredients: leadership, resource and courage. I’m a Conservative like you, and an optimist. Our prison system is in a very serious state of dissaray but it is not yet out of control. Here are ten tips for restoring order, hope and possibility to a service I was once proud to be part of:

1. Test everything you hear at HQ level on the front line. The service has some extraordinarily talented men and women working in it but, to be frank, not many of them work inside Zone 1. Form your own reference group and include prison officers to test the veracity of the big picture from careerist mandarins.

2. Get out more. Nothing beats unannounced visits to prisons for getting a real flavour of what is working well and what isn’t, as well as seeing what actually happens when you pull a policy lever.

3. Take immediate steps to restore order to the ten most challenging establishments in England and Wales. Without order, safety and control for staff and prisoners, prisoners, no progress is possible. Nothing. It’s all just words. Establish an externally supported task force accountable directly to you to take back control of the ungoverned spaces which proliferate across the system.

4. Create a HM Prison reserve force – no not the one you have been told about, a palid, half-hearted attempt to recruit a few leavers on the cheap to help with bedwatches – but a bona fide reserve force of experienced retired or departed staff, properly trained and motivated and ready to be deployed to prisons where the regimes have fallen apart. Order and control isn’t really about brute force, whatever you’re being told, it’s the restoration of services, predictability, time out of cell, procedural fairness, visible authority on landings, purposeful and meaningful work, time to talk to prisoners and pick up distress before it becomes another suicide statistic. It’s everything.

5. Challenge all existing maintenance contracts with a view to taking them back in-house if they are not performing properly. If the private sector fails to provide a decent level of maintenance in our prisons in return for handsome rewards, it should be booted out. The contracting out process of services across the prisons has been an unmitigated disaster. Remember, the broken window theory is as important on the inside of the walls as anywhere else.

6. Grant greater autonomy to operational prison governors in the field – an absolutely Conservative instinct. A self-interested and self-serving HQ hierarchy isn’t going to help in its own demise. Listen to Governors unmediated by Whitehall. Cull the bureaucrats and put the savings back into the front line.

7. Put everything you can into supporting and expanding offender employability. The jobs market is buoyant. More and more firms are recruiting ex-offenders. As the Timpson example shows, people who have taken from us and who are allowed to put something back are among the most motivated, loyal and productive employees. Get a Job Centre Plus into every resettlement prison. Start paying prisoners realistic wages with a bed, board, victim surcharge and a requirement to save a portion for release. Use technology to allow safe secure access by prisoners nearing release working in cell to search for jobs and skill themselves up. The technology is cheap and available.

8. Start talking about prison officer dignity and reach out to the Prison Officers Association, now under new management. The normalisation of extreme violence against servants of the state is grotesque and must be countered with more than vapid platitudes. Severe punishments should be sought for assaults on staff, including the disgusting use of bodily fluids. The Crown Prosecution Service should have a dedicated unit inside the Ministry of Justice to pursue assailants. Push for changes in legislation if necessary. If the government supports improved penalties for assault on police dogs, it surely ought to be able to swiftly legislate to protect prison staff.

9. Pay, conditions and retention of prison staff must be a priority. If you can’t prevent the current rate of attrition of newly recruited prison officers then the much vaunted 2,500 increase announced by your predecessor will be rendered meaningless. It’s not just the big things either. Why do prison staff look like the employees of a discount airline? Why have the essential staff supervisory ranks been obscured with fashionable titles to indicate an offender focus. Staff who aren’t offender focused ought to be out on their ear – its the raison d’etre of being a prison officer! While I’m at it – restore some much needed esprit de corps by putting all operational Governors in uniform. Don’t listen to specious arguments against, you don’t lose your humanity by putting on a uniform. The gap between front line staff and managers has grown far to wide.

10. Finally, change the ratios. Either argue for far fewer people in prison or far more staff on the landings. The current situation isn’t tenable and people are dying because of it. The first nine things aren’t worth doing if you can’t make the case for an adequately resourced system.

The Treasury knows the price of everything but I bet one week into this job, you’ll appreciate the societal value and the enormous potential of the system you inherited. It is broken. It can be fixed.

Ian Acheson led the independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation ordered by then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, in 2016