In every part of life, the question is the same: Do we go back to how things were in the pre-covid era, or do we try to salvage something from this whole godawful episode? The question applies in a very pronounced way with prisons. But here’s a spoiler: The government has learned nothing. They have changed nothing. And they now seem set to retreat headlong into precisely the same mistakes they made in the past.
If so, it’ll be a tragic lost opportunity. The pandemic has meant that the prison population is now at its lowest level in years – just 77,896 according to the latest figures. The courts closed at the start of the pandemic and they’re not up and running at full pace yet. This means the traffic of people into prison has slowed.
In pandemic terms, this has a significant advantage. It makes it much easier to establish social distancing in prison. Most inmates currently have a cell to themselves, and they live in it for 23 hours a day. That effectively means that we are imposing solitary isolation, which is typically used as a punishment, on the entirety of the prison estate. But the virus has at least not swept through prisons, as some health experts feared it would at the start of the pandemic.
There’s now the question of vaccines. Prisons, like immigrant detention centres, are vectors for transmission. If the virus takes hold in an institution, it’ll spread fast. Mutations can then take place in which the nightmare scenario of a variant unaffected by the vaccine becomes more likely. And that’s not just a risk to inmates. It’s a risk to the public. The staff who work in prisons go home at the end of their shift. And when they do, they can carry the mutated virus with them. And then, bang: it’s in the community.
It therefore makes sense to vaccinate institutions all in one go. This is also administratively simpler. You can just go in one day and get the whole place done, instead of making multiple trips. But the government isn’t doing this. So far it has vaccinated the prison population according to the groupings used for the general population, by age category and underlying health problems.
The reason for this is pure politics. If people find out that a young murderer was vaccinated before their elderly mum, there’ll be hell to pay. The Sun will run indignant headlines. You can imagine the whole predictable cycle of outrage.
But grown-up politics during a pandemic isn’t about responding to our first-stage emotional instinct. It’s about implementing the policy which brings the greatest protection from the virus. After all, we don’t assess the public for moral decency before including them in the vaccination programme. The same should apply here. Institutions are transmission vectors. They provide a threat to the public. They should therefore be vaccinated quickly and all in one go, regardless of who’s in them.
This vaccination debate is a perfect example of the kind of short-term thinking which undermines prison policy in general. For years now, we have prioritised the emotional needs of reactionaries over the policies which would actually reduce reoffending. And again: the prisoners are not the only victims of all this. The public are. If you’re mugged by someone who’s previously been in prison, it is a failure of rehabilitation. The state failed in its responsibility to make sure you were safe. And that failure took place because of prison policy.
The cruel secret behind all this is that we actually have a pretty good idea of what works to reduce reoffending: Small local prisons, which allow inmates to maintain family contact, and work training so that they can get and keep a job on the outside. It’s all ultimately about investment – getting people to invest in their lives through work and family, so that they are less likely to break the law.
This isn’t easy. Many prisoners have deep psychological and emotional problems and issues with illiteracy. But we can use prison to improve that situation, rather than worsen it.
This is not what happened in recent years. Instead, the punishment instinct kicked in – the classic Tory fire-and-brimstone tantrum which serves to satisfy their own emotional needs but does nothing to rehabilitate offenders or protect the public.
The most pronounced moment of damage came when Chris Grayling was made justice secretary in 2012. His regime was one of the most idiotic, short-sighted and needlessly cruel in the modern period. The cuts he instituted left the prisons in a terrible state – bulging with inmates, in dilapidated conditions, with not enough staff to handle them. Until March 2020, when the pandemic hit, every single quarter since showed rises in assaults by prisoners on other prisoners, and on staff, and on themselves in the form of self-harm. They are now all falling, except for self-harm in the female prison estate.
Some ministers after Grayling recognised what needed to be done. When Rory Stewart was prisons minister under Theresa May he proposed banning prison sentences of under six months unless it was for a violent or sexual offence, and treating those people in the community instead. There’s a good reason for that. Short sentences just don’t work. They throw people guilty of minor crimes like shoplifting into the meat grinder, which typically serves to traumatise them further. This policy alone would have reduced prison numbers by about 30,000 a year.
The MoJ published research showing the evidential basis for it. Stewart and David Gauke were lined up to take action. But then the May administration collapsed. Boris Johnson’s government treated it like one of the typically limp-wristed big-girl’s-blouse programmes of the Tory Remainer tendency and buried it.
In a different, better world, we’d see that this pandemic gives us a head-start on implementing Stewart’s agenda. The low numbers mean we can have more purposeful and well-resourced prisons with decent rehabilitation programmes, no overcrowding, a decent staff-to-inmate ratio and reduced violence. But that means keeping the inmate numbers down.
Instead, all the signs are that we’re going to go right back to the self-defeating fire-and-brimstone tantrums. And the reason for that goes back to Dominic Cummings. Back when he was in No.10, he noticed that voters won over to the party by Brexit tended to have very authoritarian views on issues like capital punishment. So he scribbled down some back-of-the-envelope ideas on tougher responses to crime and chucked it in the 2019 manifesto.
Now, instead of sorting out the system, we’re going to see new tougher sentencing plans and an end of halfway release in certain cases. Instead of small local prisons, we’re going to build big ones to house over 1,500 people, with a planned 10,000 more overall prison places.
So there it is. A golden opportunity to do things differently, to salvage something decent and worthwhile out of a terrible situation. We have the evidence of its necessity and a head start in implementing it. But instead, the government looks set to painstakingly piece together precisely the kind of shambolic, ineffective, unjust and self-defeating system we had previously. They’ve learned nothing. And so we have to watch them make all the same mistakes all over again.