David Cameron proposed the ‘biggest shake-up of prisons since the Victorian era’ in a speech given on 8 February. Cameron stated that ‘current levels of prison violence, drug-taking and self-harm should shame us all’ and that the ‘failure of our system today is scandalous’. Prisoners should be seen as ‘potential assets to be harnessed’ and, in order to achieve this aim, ‘we should help those who've made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path.’
There is ample evidence that British prisons are failing. Nick Hardwick, the outgoing chief inspector of prisons, stated last month that prison conditions are ‘as bad as you could possibly imagine.’ Among a range of other worrying figures, research by the MOJ found there were 14,247 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and 89 self-inflicted deaths last year.
This harsh system does not serve the public interest in seeing crime and expenditure minimised. The MOJ found that 45% of adults were reconvicted within one year of their release in 2015. The economic cost of failure is high, with reoffending by recent ex-prisoners costing the economy as much as £13bn a year according to the Prison Reform Trust. It is impossible to estimate the suffering inflicted on communities by the failure of prisons to rehabilitate inmates.
Cameron proposed ending this situation through bold reforms. Six ‘reform prisons’ are to be created by the end of this year as part of a pilot programme, which may be expanded if successful. Governors will have greater independence, total discretion over their budgets, and the ability to opt out of some Whitehall regulations. Prisons will compete with one another in league tables that rank them according to metrics such as their success in cutting reoffending or improving the literacy of inmates. Education is central to the reforms and, among other measures, Cameron promised to protect the £130m budget for prison education.
The tone and content of Cameron’s speech is to be applauded but it begs the question of how British prisons declined in the first place. The Government announced a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ as long ago as 2010 but took no significant steps to make that revolution a reality. If anything, conditions were worsened by deep cuts and vindictive policies such as the (short-lived) ban on sending books to prisoners. Furthermore, prison reform is not a panacea to the problems identified by Cameron. When it comes to rehabilitation, prisons are just one part of a wider system that relies on the very same social services that have been cut in recent years.
The conclusion might be that Cameron deserves at least muffled applause for having the courage to address the prisons crisis. Hopefully, his Government will match fine words with effective policies that allow prisons to escape the Victorian era and enter the 21st Century.