Sean Humber, prison lawyer and head of human rights at law firm Leigh Day responds to the speech made by David Cameron on prison reform and why Chris Grayling should never be allowed to book your holiday.

Look very carefully at the following two statements and try and discern the merest hint of a possible Government U-turn.

"We’ve toughened our regime in our prisons… It’s simply no longer the case that we have prisons that look like holiday camps" (Chris Grayling, Former Secretary of State for Justice, Conservative Conference 2014)

“Prisons aren’t a holiday camp – not really.  They are often miserable, painful environments.  Isolation. Mental anguish. Idleness. Bullying. Self-harm. Violence. Suicide.” (David Cameron, Prime Minister, February 2016)

The first message for me is never to let Chris Grayling book where you go on your holidays. The hapless former Secretary of State for Justice, who at the end of his reign of terror at the Ministry of Justice was losing so many judicial review challenges that he seemed incapable of getting out of bed in the morning without acting unlawfully, obviously doesn’t know his Butlins from his Belmarsh.

The second is that David Cameron appears to have somewhat unpredictable views on our criminal justice system. Having started life wanting to hug hoodies as part of his Big Society he lurched rightwards and professed to being made physically sick by the prospect of giving prisoners the vote.

The question for me is therefore, with his speech on prison reform yesterday, whether David Cameron is serious about the urgent need for action.

With the election safely won, he is now shorn of the need to pander to ill-informed prejudices of the right wing media.

Similarly, with retirement on the horizon, the importance of a legacy and the need to do all of that gentler, kinder nation stuff, so carefully kept under wraps thus far, suddenly becomes more pressing.

However, the unpalatable truth is that, up until now, the Prime Minister’s policies have been part of the problem. For the last 5 years, he has presided over a dramatic worsening of our prison system.  

At the same time as more people than ever were being sent to prison for lengthier sentences, the prison budget was being slashed by almost a billion pounds and the number of front line staff in public sector prisons reduced by over 40%.

Unsurprisingly this has resulted in our over-crowded and under-staffed prisons becoming less safe for prisoners and prison staff alike, with the numbers of deaths in custody, assaults and incidents of self-harm all up. Prisoners can now spend up to 20 hours a day locked in their small cells bored, frustrated and increasingly angry with the lack of recreational, educational or rehabilitation opportunities.

During all of this time, the situation faced by elderly and disabled prisoners has, if anything, been even worse.  All too often, prisons have failed to adequately address even their most basic toileting, dressing and washing or mobility needs. 

As a result, many lead a lonely and isolated existence and unable to participate in even the most basic aspects of prison life.

Instead of seeking to tackle these issues, successive Government Ministers have been at the forefront of a campaign to demonise prisoners, cynically cultivating an artificial sense of otherness about them in order to justify doing so little to address their conditions, rather than recognising them as part of the complicated society within which we all live.

Depressingly, believing in rehabilitation of prisoners was somehow equated as being soft on crime and letting down their victims.

As a result, the Prime Minister is right to describe the prison system over which he has presided as a failure.  His apparently Damascene conversion to the issue of prison reform is therefore to be welcomed.  However, ultimately, talk is cheap.

Long overdue action is needed to address why we send so many people to prison for such long sentences and why quite so many people with serious mental health problems are in prison at all.

Action also needs to massively increase in education, training and work opportunities so that those leaving prison come out genuinely rehabilitated. All of this requires real political commitment as well as significant financial resources.

If the Prime Minister really does wish to see prisoners as “potential assets to be harnessed” rather than “liabilities to be managed”, then a small but symbolic first step would be to implement the recommendations of the Parliamentary Select Committee that he set up, as well as successive judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, and finally give prisoners the vote.