Prison crisis: Cameron brands his own record ‘shameful’

It’s hard to get your head around David Cameron's speech on prisons today. After ignoring prisons for years, he will admit that they are "scandalous" and should "shame us all".

It's as if someone else had been in charge of them. It must have escaped Cameron's notice, but he has been prime minister since 2010, during which the prison system has undergone an almost unparalleled period of deterioration. So if we must all be ashamed, perhaps he should be most ashamed of all.

Last year's outcomes in prisons were the worst for a decade. "You were more likely to die in prison than five years ago," the prison inspector wrote in his 2015 report. "More prisoners were murdered, killed themselves, self-harmed and were victims of assaults than five years ago." Suicides fell slightly, from 88 to 76, but they were still 40% higher than in 2010. Self-harm among male prisoners was a third higher than 2010.

Back in those early sunny days of the Coalition, Cameron put Ken Clarke in charge of the Ministry of Justice. He proceeded to do some very sensible things. He warned that the prison population could not keep on growing indefinitely as it had under Labour and that it made no sense to continue locking up illiterate non-violent offenders.

The traditional attack came, from the right-wing tabloids and Tory backbenchers. Cameron did not protect him. Instead, he backed down in the face of backbench demands and installed Chris Grayling, who ran a mind-bogglingly wrong-headed penal policy.

Grayling paid no attention to experts and overruled prison governors themselves by putting in place a tough new disciplinary system from Whitehall while overseeing deep departmental cuts. It was exactly the disaster the experts predicted it would be.

Throughout this period I was repeatedly told by those close to No10 that Cameron just wasn't interested in prisons. To be fair, prime ministers rarely are. This is the first speech by one of them in 20 years. He seemed completely unmoved by the appalling deterioration in standards under Grayling's watch. Now, apparently, he has had a change of heart.

Who knows how this came about? Is he worried about fulfilling the message of his progressive conference speech? Has Michael Gove successfully lobbied for change? In all likelihood, it's both. The reasons why don't really matter, but the proposals do.

Cameron's chief solution is to devolve decision-making powers to prison governors, with six 'reform prisons' to get the power to run themselves and set their budgets by the end of the year and a roll-out to half of all the institutions by 2020. They'll also publish league tables with performance data on measures like reoffending.

Lib Dem David Laws will chair a new social enterprise on getting top graduates into prison education. The prison education budget of £130 million will be protected, although it's not clear if that means the Treasury is reducing the level of Ministry of Justice cuts or whether the department will simply be told to find the savings elsewhere.

This is all good, but insufficient.

The devolution idea is a fine one. Governors know more about what works in prison than secretaries of state. The punishment regime installed by Grayling was irritating at best to governors, who had to enforce a meaningless and demoralising disciplinary system so the secretary of state could win a favourable review in the Daily Mail. Devolution will allow them to scrap all that and make other small but significant changes, like on the phone system.

We know from studies going back four decades that maintaining relationships is key to reducing reoffending, but phone calls from prison are made prohibitively expensive. "It's heart wrenching," a former prisoner told me recently. "You need to talk. You've got a cold-hearted environment inside. You need communication with the outside and you're denied that. And for what? For the sake of reducing costs."

But even with these sensible ideas, Cameron will not be able to enact his reform of prisons unless he is prepared to undertake at least one of two unpalatable ideas. Firstly, fewer people need to go to jail and, secondly, the budget cuts need to stop.

The MoJ has been told to reduce its administrative budget by 50% within five years, with 15% cuts in the prison and court budgets specifically. It's the deepest cut of any Whitehall department with over £5 billion annual budgets. And that comes on top of existing harsh savings. The number of full-time public sector prison staff fell by 29% between March 2010 and December 2014.

At the same time, the prison population continues to skyrocket. When the chief inspector of prisons analyses the ever-increasing levels of violence, it is this disconnect between rising inmate numbers and falling budgets which he singles out for blame.

As he wrote in his last annual report:

"It remains my view that staff shortages, overcrowding and the wider policy changes described in this report have had a significant impact on prison safety."

The justice select committee came to the same conclusion, saying:

"We believe that the key explanatory factor for the obvious deterioration in standards over the last year is that a significant number of prisons have been operating at staffing levels below what is necessary to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes."

Most prisoners you speak to spend the entire day in a cell. Not only do we fail to educate them, or train them, or get them into a work regime which they might continue once they're outside, or make sure they maintain the family connections which make reoffending less likely. We also actively put them in a situation which aggravates and demoralises them.

As a recent report into the young offenders' institute in Aylesbury found:

"In addition to the more predictable causes of violence, the long periods of lock up and inactivity most prisoners experienced caused frustrations that contributed to the likelihood of violence and aggression."

They spend that time in a cell because there are not enough staff to take them out for activities. You often hear of prisons with a really good prison library – but without enough staff to actually take inmates to it. Without the staff, everything is meaningless. There is no true prison reform unless you can improve the staff-to-inmate ratio.

That requires either protecting budgets or reducing the numbers going to jail – or preferably both. In truth, there is no reason non-violent criminals should go to jail unless they are persistent offenders.

But it takes political bravery to make that point as prime minister. As soon as you do, Tory backbenchers and the right-wing tabloids will come for you. And right now, Cameron has a tenuous enough relationship with them over Europe that he surely does not fancy the prospect of opening up another flank.

The prime minister's record on prisons suggests he does not have much political bravery in this area. But without it, today's speech will be just tinkering at the edges.