Reform of our prisons is badly needed

HMP Northumberland.
HMP Northumberland.

Last week the Prime Minister announced what is, in many ways, the biggest shake-up of our crumbling prison system since the Victorian era.

As part of this Government’s compassionate and progressive platform to extend life chances and tackle social problems, prisons are to no longer be shown a blind-eye. We must look into the 121 institutions around the country where these problems are most acute.

The Government’s announcement leaves me optimistic that change for our prison system is around the corner. It will not be easy, but it is crucial that we do our upmost to turn the tide.

The level of failure is worrying — 46 per cent of prisoners will re-offend within a year of release, while this is 60 per cent for short-sentenced prisoners. Within the prisons, the culture is often toxic. In a typical week, there will be almost 600 incidents of self-harm, at least one suicide, and 350 assaults.

Our system is broken, with re-offending costing up to £13billion a year. This is a burden on us all, not least the victims of crimes committed by re-offenders, but also re-offenders themselves who have been allowed to get to this point.

We need to empower prisons. We need to give governors and employees the power to make decisions, use their initiative, and reveal new forms of best practice and innovation. Prisons currently operate under 46,000 pages of instructions. Some are vital, but others, which dictate the number of jigsaws or sheets of music prisoners are allowed, are an over-prescription from ‘headquarters’.

The Government is looking to bring the academy model to the prison system. This will give governors unprecedented financial and operational autonomy, allow them to choose their own suppliers, and empower them to tailor their own regimes. This system has revolutionised our schools and I think it can help improve prisons.

It is nonsensical that we do not have the necessary data to compare prisons. We have no way to determine which prisons are doing better or worse. The Government will develop meaningful metrics on prison performance. By being able to analyse metrics such as re-offending rates, we can increase accountability so prisons can be rewarded, incentivised and helped through a league table system.

Prisons have to be more than just holding-pens. This Government has hardened sentencing for the most severe criminal cases, and it is right that the victim is always put first. However, prisons should be about much more than just punishment.

Many prisons have designed-in bullying as they were barely built for habitation years ago and are much worse today. We are going to see £1.3billion invested to demolish many of these old prisons and build nine new ones.

To further aid rehabilitation, education is key. My own research for my book ‘Doing Time’ found that 50 per cent of male prisoners and 70 per cent of female prisoners had no qualifications, and 82 per cent had the writing ability of, or less than, an 11-year-old.

How can these people possibly contribute to society, or sustain themselves?

The Government’s shift of emphasis to education is tremendously welcome. Governors will be given control over education providers, education budgets will be protected with £130million per year, and Teach First is advising on a social enterprise that will see the brightest graduates teach in prisons.

Finally, we need to go beyond rehabilitation in prisons and expand this to prisoners on release. The Government is looking at swift and short sentencing for drug re-use by offenders. Satellite tracking tags could be a way of monitoring people on probation, but could also allow some prisoners to be productive members of the community during their sentences.

It also could be easier for ex-offenders to get jobs by moving the point at which an individual has to declare a prior sentence to later in the application process.

We can harness new methods and technology to bring conditionality into the justice system, and by doing so, aid rehabilitation.

The Government’s announcement leaves me optimistic that change for our prison system is around the corner. It will not be easy, but it is crucial that we do our upmost to turn the tide.

A compassionate Government cannot leave prisons as no-go areas, knowing how re-offending impacts our communities, and our society. That is why this prison revolution is so crucial, and I give it my full support.