16 November 2016

It would be criminal not to reform our prisons

By Michael Gove

It is,  I know very well, not fashionable at the moment to praise members of the political class.

And in particular, it is positively dangerous to celebrate anyone who might be thought either metropolitan, liberal or even a member of an elite.

So to record my admiration for an Old Etonian intellectual, who occupied a series of powerful political offices without ever being elected, and who used his social and political eminence to argue for a more thorough-goingly liberal and humane approach to perhaps the least popular minority in our society – convicted criminals – is not exactly what you might call swimming with the zeitgeist.

But that is what I want to do: to say how much I admire the example and record of Frank Longford.

Driven by his deep belief in the essential dignity of every human being, he made it his life’s work to rehabilitate and redeem those who had fallen furthest from grace.

He believed no one was irredeemable.

Frank Longford’s deep humanity, essential decency and Christian charity are virtues much needed at this time.

At this turn in the world’s affairs I would ask of us all, those in power of course most of all, that we try to see the world through the eyes of others, enlarge our sympathies and look for the good to be found, sometimes deeply hidden, in every human heart.

So many of those in our prisons are damaged individuals, victims themselves, and we should be careful about the moral judgements we make about them.

That does not mean when they offend that we should suspend the operation of the law on which the social order depends. Law-breaking requires the imposition of sanctions.

But the deprivation of liberty inherent in being sent to prison is punishment enough.

Offenders should not face further degradation or indignity when in custody. Quite the opposite. We should use that time to repair lives not further blight them.

We need to ensure that prisons build up the resources of character and resilience which will mean prisoners are less likely to offend in future.

I believe, with Frank Longford, that such a mission is vital because every single human soul is precious and all of us can achieve something worthwhile if the circumstances are right.

But even if you’re a hard-bitten cynic who regards such language as hopelessly naive nonsense, and you believe the purpose of the justice system is not to help bad people but protect good people, then you should want to ensure our prisons are more effective at rehabilitation.

Because at the moment half of those sent to prison offend again after their release. We spend hundreds of thousands of pounds keeping these individuals detained under state control.

We govern who they see and what they do, what they learn and how they work, who leads and who follows, every minute of their life for months or perhaps years at a time. And after all that they go on to offend again, and again. Now that really is criminal

So how do we ensure our prisons are places of redemption and rehabilitation?

The first step, as the Justice Secretary, has rightly pointed out is restoring order and purpose to establishments which have become far too violent recently.

But security cannot be an end in itself. And good order doesn’t only rest on manpower, surveillance and swift responses to provocation.

Good order also springs from ensuring prisoners are out of their cell as much as possible. From making sure that their activities are purposeful and rewarding, that good behaviour and a desire to progress are noticed and rewarded and grievances are promptly and fairly addressed.

That is why it is so good to see the Justice Secretary developing plans to reform the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme which governors deploy to encourage good behaviour.

The aim is to give governors more discretion and greater autonomy to make their own institutions more responsive to prisoners’ specific circumstances.

The Justice Secretary has also made it clear that prisons will be judged in the future on criteria such as the time prisoners spend out of their cells, the number of hours of purposeful activity, improved educational attainment and success in finding them meaningful work.

Public sector reform can’t succeed without effective measurement, useable data and a commitment to learn from the evidence.

It is criminal that so much penal policy in the past, here and elsewhere, has not been driven by data and evidence as rigorously as it should have been.

I also think we have to move away from the centralisation of the past; we should build on the academy model and the foundation hospital initiative.

Academies have benefited from business links which have served their students well. Foundation trusts have benefited from public-spirited professionals and also from improved relationships with partners outside the NHS who help enhance delivery.

We should develop management teams for prisons which involve outside educators and employers, local government figures and those with wider professional expertise. The success of our prisons should be a shared social priority – involving charities, social enterprises and wider civil society.

We should want prisons to engage with principals running local colleges, business people hiring apprentices, employers recruiting new colleagues, social work leaders involved in the supervision of those in care and volunteers who want to make a difference. All these people should be involved in setting goals and providing opportunities for prisoners.

It’s already the case that the first reform prisons are exploring how to establish such links and relationships. But I would argue that, over time, all prisons save perhaps for a few high-security establishments, should go down this path.

I would certainly like to see the educational achievement and the employment success of prisoners become as much a matter of local concern – or pride – as school GCSE results or joblessness figures overall.

We discovered in schools that setting higher expectations is a necessary precondition to achieving better results. Prison education, far more than any other area of the education system, still suffers from the soft bigotry of low expectations.

The situation is, if anything, worse when it comes to prison work. The prison with the highest number of inmates in productive employment – Coldingley in my constituency of Surrey Heath – still has fewer than half its prisoners doing useful, remunerative, work that enhances their skill level.

I believe we should allow governors to form commercial arrangements with employers where the profits made by prisoners’ endeavours can be reinvested in both the prisoners’ education and welfare and placed in an escrow account for the prisoners to access after a period out of jail without repeat offending.

As matters stand, prisons are not allowed to operate enterprises that might, even marginally, have an adverse effect on other local businesses. These rules, along with a mountain of other bureaucracy, make it difficult for employers to operate effective commercial partnerships with prisons.

I would sweep away all these rules and allow prisons to bid, compete and sell services in any way they can to give prisoners the chance to feel fully integrated into the nation’s economic life and earn money they could enjoy if their rehabilitation has proven successful.

That is why it is right to extend the number of prisoners who can be released on temporary licence reintegrating themselves into civil society and learning to become assets to society rather than liabilities

I also think we should open up prison management even further by recruiting individuals with different professional backgrounds as governors.

I’d like to see successful head teachers or college principals or senior social workers or individuals with strong business records, particularly those with a successful track record in training new employees, given the chance to run prisons.

We need to do everything we can to emphasise that prison is not there to separate individuals any further from society than is necessary for security and justice – the real challenge should be re-integration.

That is why more prisons should become independent legal entities – free-standing institutions like academy schools – with the potential for the very best to takeover under-performing institutions.

It’s not just the academy model we built on in education which I would like to see extended, I also think the devolution agenda, driven so brilliantly by my friend George Osborne, should play a progressively larger part in the delivery of criminal justice.

I think we should expect to see more and more prisons and courts, alongside youth justice provision, handed over to metro mayors for local leadership.

If we give local areas a specific police, crime and justice budget and allow them to divide it as appropriate between community policing, youth services, social work, youth offending teams, probation, community sentencing, courts and custody, then we could see communities make mature decisions about spending more on effective crime prevention measures that would reduce the need for expensive provision of more and more prison places.

I would – in the same spirit – like to see an expansion of the number of problem-solving courts in the system.

In these courts, the presiding judge takes a personal interest in the fate of the offender and is prepared to spare an individual from custody if they accept a course of treatment or submit to certain conditions.

These courts create a culture – and a presumption – of remorse and rehabilitation, without the need for expensive, and potentially brutalising, imprisonment. I welcome the Justice Secretary’s commitment to trialling them and hope they play an increasingly important part in our justice system.

Apart from their intrinsic merits, problem solving courts can help reduce the numbers of offenders who have to face prison.

And it is an inconvenient truth – which I swerved to an extent while in office – that we send too many people to prison. And of those who deserve to be in custody, many, but certainly not all, are sent there for too long.

I did make it a commitment while in office that we would determinedly reduce the number of women in prison. And I wanted to demonstrate through that cutting of the prison population that we could go further.

A significant number of those we imprison are suffering from mental health problems. It is no answer to their illness, or its impact on society, to send them to the cacophonous, chaotic, violent and disordered environment which prevails in far too many of our prisons. They deserve care not custody.

We should be intervening in the lives of these individuals long before they end up in court to tackle the root – medical – causes of their offending behavior.

But as well as improving mental health provision, we also need to be much more imaginative in providing alternatives to custody for all offenders because prison is expensive, anti-social, inefficient and often de-humanising.

We imprison a far higher percentage of our population than similar developed nations. And we have been sentencing individuals to significantly longer sentences over time in the last few years.

In terms of pure justice and fairness, there are far too many prisoners, who were sentenced under the IPP – Indefinite Sentence for Public Protection provisions – who have served far longer than the gravity of their offence requires and who should be released.

We know, too, that many prisoners sentenced for terms of less than 12 months are scarcely in custody long enough to benefit from rehabilitation, but are in a criminal environment easily long enough to encounter far greater temptations and corruption than life on the outside.

Community sentences, though, have been discredited in the past because of poor supervision and ineffective follow-up. They need to be far better policed, with swift and certain sanctions for those who do not observe the terms of their community sentence.

The smarter, and wider, use of electronic monitoring with tags for those on community sentences or early release would both improve public confidence and ensure we could keep more individuals in education or work rather than estranged from socialising and beneficial influences.

I’m not opposed to tougher sentencing in some areas – but I am convinced that we cannot provide the effective level of rehabilitation we need for offenders without either increasing expenditure significantly or reducing prisoner numbers overall.

So reducing prisoner numbers is not just better for taxpayers – it’s better for all of us. Overcrowded prisons are more likely to be academies of crime, brutalisers of the innocent and incubators of addiction rather than engines of self-improvement.

And for those – and I was one – who fear that reducing the prison population must automatically lead, at the very least in the short term, to an upsurge in crime, I would point to the success, over successive governments in reducing the population of young offenders in custody, which has also been matched with a decrease in youth crime.

Freeing up space in the prison estate would also allow us more easily to re-organise it. And that would also help in another way – by making it easier to guarantee continuity of care for those in custody.

The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) recognises the significant benefits that can come if offenders are managed in one institution for vast majority of their sentence by one team with one individual responsible for the prisoner’s whole journey towards rehabilitation. But this isn’t the case at the moment.

We need to move towards such a system because we need to be able to hold prison management teams and governors accountable. We need to have better data on the impact individual institutions and regimes have on inmates.

That means prisoners need to be in an environment where their care and supervision is consistent. Not just a good in itself – but also a way of driving improvement overall. But that is hugely difficult to achieve in our currently over-crowded estate.

Which is – again – why we need to consider sentencing reform. And one particular enthusiasm of mine is linking the nature, and length, of a custodial sentence to achievement in custody.

One of the very best custodial establishments I visited when Justice Secretary was the Armed Forces’ prison for enlisted men. Far from being a brutal glasshouse of the kind that a Victorian martinet would have approved of, it was a highly effective and very well managed engine of rehabilitation.

The Commanding Officer could, every day, extend new privileges, including outside visits and earlier release, depending on the progress prisoners made in reaching various goals.

I’d like to see it made possible to release inmates before the current half-way point in their sentence, if they’ve demonstrated that they are ready for re-integration into society.

Of course there are some offenders, and some sentences, not suitable for such a scheme.

But the knowledge that offenders could earn early release though the right behaviour would be a powerful tool in helping to inject hope into their lives, improving behaviour and security, and in making sure that when they are released offenders have the right attitudes to succeed in society.

I am sure that if all the reforms I’ve outlined – though there is far more I could say – were put in place, then the benefits would be significant.

But I am also sure that some things would go wrong. No reform ever lands perfectly, no new initiative ever lives up to every hope.

So I suspect that a new approach to regulating the quality of advocacy, or improving prison governance, or extending early release, would inevitably mean instances of poor practice and errors – as well as crimes committed by those released before their time.

But the alternative to change is the status quo: a declining criminal bar, a worsening situation in our prisons, a recidivism rate that is indefensible.

So not to change, not to reform our system when we know we can do better – that really would be criminal.

This is an edited version of the annual Longford Lecture, established in 2002 to give speakers a chance to debate prison reform. The full version will be available on the Longford Trust website from tomorrow.

Michael Gove was Justice Secretary from 2015-16