6 August 2020

Our prison system is failing – it’s time for a reset

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Imagine a national company that makes very important widgets. The company has an annual turnover of £3 billion. The failure rate of the widgets after a year is nearly 50%. That company is going to go bust.

What I’ve just described is our decrepit and failing prison system. Each year we pour in a vast amount of taxpayers money to house and allegedly rehabilitate around 80,000 offenders, almost half of whom will offend again within 12 months of leaving places filled with drugs, brutality and despair. For too many, our system sees a trail of broken lives behind, unrealised potential and further victims round the corner. Those victims are occasionally you and me but more often they are the poor communities tortured by entrenched lawlessness we’ve either never known or bought ourselves out of. However, despite all this, our penal system is too big to fail, so instead it must be cajoled, somehow, to improve.

Yesterday saw the appointment of the man whose job it is to measure and encourage such improvement. The new Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor has very big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Peter Clarke, a career policeman, originally viewed with suspicion by the criminal justice commentariat, proved to be one of the most effective watchdogs ever to occupy the role. His biting criticism of squalor, indolence and complacency was every bit as bad as his bark. Mr Clarke did not take prisoners in his approach. His devastating forewords to the reports on Birmingham and Liverpool prisons could easily have been written in the 18th century. His credibility and his relationship with ministers, particularly Rory Stewart, meant that he could bypass the many bureaucratic hurdles placed in his way by a fearful corporate machine and speak truth directly to power. It got results.

Mr Taylor needs to read the positive reaction to his appointment with a jaundiced eye. Many of the mandarins in Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service – and not a few of their allies in the interchangeable nexus of ‘progressive’ criminology and NGOs – will see his appointment as an opportunity to defang or at least retrain a watchdog that caused much past embarrassment by revealing stark failures to support the front line. As far as we can tell, the prison service has coped well with the pandemic. They have done so, however, by instituting a lockdown so pervasive and draconian it will be exceedingly difficult indeed to get prisons back to normal. Despite – or more likely because of – this frozen landscape of prisoners locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, rates of self-harm have reached record highs: in the last 12 months of reporting, there were 64,552 incidents. Of course a return to ‘normal’ would mean a return to an environment so toxic and violent to live and work in that the latest annual data shows resignations of front line staff at record rates, with 714 expensively trained officers not even making it out of probation. You can see why a return to chaos as usual might not be the most attractive of options.

So there’s plenty for Charlie Taylor to be looking at in the short and medium term. His inspections must continue to be a rigorous examination of the state’s obligations to those who offend and its wider obligation to fit offenders with the skills and incentives to lead crime free lives. Mr Taylor has an background in education and produced a ground-breaking report on fixing youth custody. He will be dismayed at just how destructive the environment in many of our young offender institutions continues to be, managing a small but profoundly damaged number of children against almost impossible odds. He is also something of a behaviour management expert. He will want to pay urgent attention to a thread that runs through his predecessor’s reports with dismal predictability – failing institutions where staff have neither the will nor the support to take on and challenge pernicious low-level incivility. As with the classroom, so with prisons – without the foundation of order and people with authority clearly in charge, there is little hope of anything else positive emerging.

I hope that the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, will also use this new appointment as a means to encourage a necessary widening of the remit for the inspectorate. Currently the tests for a ‘healthy’ prison look at safety, respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation. They must now include an additional test of ‘prison leadership’ both local and national. Taylor will know from his education days how central good leadership is to the culture and outcomes of effective schools. So it is with prisons in terms of the leadership by Governors and the support offered to them by the sprawling bureaucracy that sits above them, much of which could be safely jettisoned with no discernible impact. Ironically, leadership is a central plank of Ofsted inspections of prison education providers but entirely missing from the wider institutional reports Taylor will be compiling. This really needs to be addressed. Such a move will be stoutly resisted by the Justice Department ‘blob’ of course. There is no appetite in this most secretive and dysfunctional of government agencies for any further examination of a management culture which has for ten years presided over every metric of decency and safety in eternal freefall. That is, of course, precisely why such scrutiny should be imposed.

So, it can’t be ‘trebles all round’ at the Ministry of Justice on Mr Clarke’s departure and it doesn’t have to be. We invest huge amounts of public money in a system that fails to protect society by releasing people after stupidly designed custody, as often as not leaving them more likely to re-offend. If Mr Taylor’s priorities are encouraging prisons to be well led, clean, purposeful and orderly he’ll be doing extremely well. But he’s up against forces of inertia and complacency well documented by his predecessor that would daunt Sisyphus. In this respect, crossing the road for an early fight is not always unwise. I wish him well.

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Professor Ian Acheson is a Senior Advisor with the Counter Extremism Project.

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