By Sadiq Khan
Prisons should be about punishment and reform, something I've repeatedly said since I became shadow justice secretary in 2010. Depriving someone of their liberty – their freedom to come and go as they please, to go to the pub, to see their kids and go shopping – is one of the state's most important powers. It's reserved for those committing the most serious offences.
But we also know that nine out of ten of those behind bars now will have finished their sentences and be back living in the community again within a decade. Nobody wants them to repeat their crimes. We don't want any more misery inflicted on society. So the time spent behind bars needs to be time spent making sure offenders are reformed. That means tackling deep-seated mental health problems, alcohol and drug dependency, equipping them with the skills and education that makes finding and holding down a job is easier. Dumping them back onto the streets no different than when they went into jail is a failure of our prisons.
This won't be made any easier if prisons are violent places where offenders are left to fester. In fact, it'll be made all the more harder. And our prisons are getting worse under this government. There were more deaths in custody last year than ever before, staffing levels have seen deep cuts, there's a shortage of places and violence against prison staff is up sharply. Prisoners are idling away more of their time in their cells and on landings than four years ago. None of this adds up to an environment conducive to punishment and reform.
And this is important because when people are held in prison they are in the care of the state. Yes, that time behind bars is meant to be a punishment but it's not meant to be a den of violence where people fear for their safety on a daily basis. That's not right, and won't do much to stop re-offending, or prevent more victims of crime in the future. I take that responsibility very seriously indeed. Too many people die in prison and too many mistakes are still made. We need to be much better at how prisons are run, and how they punish and reform.
But politicians and officials in the Ministry of Justice don't have a monopoly on how this might best be achieved. Other groups are crucial. And civic society performs a major role. Organisations with a specific cause bring their expertise and views to the debate. They might be opposing views to mine, or to other groups involved, but that makes for a heady mix of opinions and a healthy debate. That tension leads to improved scrutiny of government policy and, ultimately, better decision making. In short, there's nothing to be feared from this kind of atmosphere.
Yet this government appear to have declared war on civil society. Stung by criticisms of their policy, they've pursued an agenda designed to silence those daring to question the impacts of government legislation. They’ve even gone so far as to try to insulate themselves from legal challenge, meaning that the government has placed itself above the rule of law. Just think about that for a moment – a Tory-led government deciding the legality of its actions can no longer be questioned – and consider the implications for our democracy.
Let's remember the roll call of shame - cuts to legal aid, curtailing judicial review, attacks on human rights legislation, making freedom of information request more difficult and legislating for the loathed gagging bill amount to a substantial onslaught on free speech, campaigning and democracy. The Tories have been taken over by a majoritarian view that the party that wins an election has the right to do whatever it likes, free from being held to account and even free to ignore the rule of law.
Unlike the Tories, Labour believes that democracy is more than just voting. Democracy is about active citizenship, mass-membership of political parties, trade unions and campaign groups. It's about holding to account those in power at all times, and not just at elections. We know such criticism can be tough when you're in government but that’s a product of a healthy, open democracy. You don’t shut down debate just because you don’t like it.
Politics.co.uk's report that Chris Grayling has blocked research into sex in prisons by the Howard League for Penal Reform fits this pattern of behaviour. Some suggest it's because they’ve been a persistent thorn in his side. Others have argued that it's because it's an embarrassing subject he doesn't want out in the open. Either way, this is another example of the Tory-led government elbowing civic society aside, and shows a justice secretary unfit for the job.
I've been on the end of the odd stinging rebuke from the Howard League myself, but that wouldn't mean I'd want to shut them up. What is the point of having pressure groups if they don't put pressure on politicians? It is their job to be an advocate for their vision for prisons. Credit where credit is due, it was their chief executive Frances Crook’s original blog post for Politics.co.uk on the iniquitous ban on sending books to prisoners which exploded the issue into the open.
Should I become justice secretary, a request to research the subject of sex in prisons would be looked on favourably. After all, this is isn't a frivolous topic, like some kind of 1970s Carry On film. It's deadly serious. Sex does go on in prisons and there's no point the justice secretary denying it. And any seasoned visitor to a prison will be struck by the posters warning of Hepatitis B plastered to the walls. There are genuine public health concerns this research would get to grips with that have implications for public policy.
What's more, sex isn't always consensual. Sadly, sexual violence and rape does go on, and we should be determined to root it out and do all we can to stop it. Crimes are crimes even when behind bars. Instead, Chris Grayling wants to bury his head in the sand and ignore it, probably because it doesn't fit his right-wing agenda of throwing red meat to his restless backbenchers. But that's no way to run a justice system and love them or loathe them, the Howard League and other organisations are here to stay. Long may that be the case.
Sadiq Khan is Labour MP for Tooting and shadow justice secretary.
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.