"There remains only one way to judge a prison

Truss’ big plans for prison reform have no substance behind them

By The Tartan Con

Liz Truss' white paper on prison safety was widely anticipated. We're in the middle of a prison crisis and there was hope that the new justice secretary would continue some of the radical ideas of her predecessor, Michael Gove.

It doesn't look like we’re going to get that lucky. At the heart of the white paper are three main problems: staffing, inmate allocation and space. The answers to these problems are not encouraging.


The Proposal:

Truss has announced that she will be hiring a further 2,500 prison officers. She wants to create apprenticeship opportunities, a graduate scheme and make a concerted effort to hire from ex-armed forces personnel. She believes that this will eradicate the chronic understaffing issue which plague the prison estate today.

The Reality:

All very interesting until you read further that these roles will not come online until 2018. In addition to that, prison officers are currently leaving the service in greater numbers than are entering it. Truss admits that in the eighteen months leading up to June 2016 there was only a net increase in staffing levels of 295 officers. This new increase of staff still doesn’t take us to the levels from before 2010, when there were significantly less prisoners to manage. 

The current training program for prison officers lasts no more than nine weeks.  You’ve got to ask if that is sufficient time to train a person in an extremely stressful and sometimes volatile vocation. 

With the minimum age for an officer now reduced to 18 and the starting salary around £20,000, I wonder if Ms Truss is going for quantity over quality. Staff are leaving in droves only to be replaced by underpaid and under trained individuals, raising questions about whether this new injection of workers will really make an impact.

The morale between prison officers, governors and inmates is an at all time low. You will recall the horrific murder of  Jamal Mahmoud at HMP Pentonville, the recent riots at HMP Bedford, HMP Lewes and HMP Birmingham. You may have heard of the suicide of a young man at HMP Manchester who killed himself after being bullied. This year alone there have been over 36,000 incidents of self harm and over 100 self inflicted deaths. It would be naive of us to think that all of these incidents were caused by the lack of staffing in our prisons, but if even one of those incidents could have been prevented by the proper staffing of the prisons then blame must be laid at the feet of those who created the understaffing crisis itself.

The violence, contraband, self inflicted deaths and riots in our prisons are a problem now, not two years from now.

Personal Officer Scheme

The Proposal:

There will be a personal officer for every six prisoners in custody to act as a mentor.

The Reality:

This is nothing new. The personal officer scheme has been in action for the last 20 years.

But what is new is that the numbers don’t add up. The secretary of state might want one officer per six prisoners, but the staffing levels we’ve just discussed mean this is mathematically unachievable.

The reality of prison life is that it is nomadic. Not only do prisoners move prisons throughout their sentence; they also move wings within the establishment as they progress or as places necessitate. This therefore makes Truss’ proposal unworkable as the staff she mentions will be unit/wing based and be unable to monitor those prisoners allocated to them if they are not resident on the wing where they work. He has other duties to adhere to and you can pretty much guarantee that the mentoring of prisoners will be but 30 minutes of his working day. Staff are stretched enough as it is in their duties and to add more on top of them could be deemed to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Building new Prison Spaces

The Proposal:

The secretary of state announces in her white paper that she will open a new prison in Wales (HMP Berwyn) in February of 2017 at a projected cost of £212 million and invest a further £1.3 billion to build up to 10,000 new adult prison places.

The Reality:

Some people will see this as welcome news. I do not. 

Truss is planning to close some out of date establishments, like HMP Glen Parva and build on pre-existing sites, like HMP Wellingborough. Her stance has always been that she can further her reform agendas without reducing the prison population. In reality, this is an admission of failure. New prisons are not the answer to the problem of prison population and over-crowding. Addressing the issues that lead people to commit crime is.

The new prisons I am sure will be lovely buildings, architecturally inspiring and maybe even the centres for innovative reform that they promise to be. But instead of building her way out of the problem, perhaps more funds could be allocated to the rehabilitation of the individual, so that the spaces aren't required in the first place.

There's a lot of talk about rehabilitation. Truss talks about issuing league tables, giving accountability to the governors and allowing them to control their own budgets. But if the budgets remain the same then the results will remain that way as well. The only difference is that the blame will have shifted from the Ministry of Justice to the governor.

There remains only one way to judge a prison's success. Count how many people leave and don't come back.

The white paper is just the same rhetoric issued by previous justice secretaries. They want to be seen to be doing something on a social scale, showing the public that they are tough but yet so very compassionate. This latest white paper regrettably mentions nothing out of the ordinary, nothing groundbreakingly innovative. It just says what we all know to be the facts surrounding the woeful state of Britain’s jails. I imagine I’ll be writing the exact same article the next time a secretary of state for justice addresses prison reform.

The Tartan Con is a pseudonym used by an ex prisoner who was sentenced to seven years in prison. He is passionate about prison reform and blogs regularly on the state of our prisons on TheTartanCon.blogspot.com. He is on Twitter at @TheTartanCon.

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