Dr James Treadwell, senior lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University

Having spent a considerable part of the last year in prison undertaking an ethnographic study of violence and victimisation, I greeted David Cameron’s announcements on his planned reform of English and Welsh prisons today (initially at least) with some optimism.  But as I looked further it became clear that David Cameron’s pronouncements are underpinned by little by the way of substance or real commitment.  Indeed, what is most interesting is that in championing prison reform he is seemingly again looking across the Atlantic again for inspiration, and finding Barack Obama, who has said similar things.  The difference is that for Cameron, these reforms often seem like an inconvenient afterthought, no matter how much he suggests that the zeal to reform prison is classic conservativism. And one cannot escape the belief that it probably has more to do with economics than moral ideology.

Much of the findings of recent research I conducted with Dr Kate Gooch painted the same bleak picture of imprisonment that the Prime Minister outlined today. Although we also witnessed some excellent practices and real commitment from a team of dedicated team of prison staff and managers, overall it was difficult not to agree with the assessments of prison that Cameron gave today.  The failure of our contemporary prisons system is quite apparent when one considers that across the estate in a typical week, there will be on average one suicide, around 600 recorded incidents of self-harm; and 350 recorded assaults, – including 90 on staff. However, as I know from experience, much violence in prison is not recorded in the statistics.  Of course, there are better and worse prisons, and Her Majesties Inspectorate of Prisons provide a pretty accurate barometer of the best and worst.  The best tend to be smaller, better resourced or tasked with delivering specialist function to a specific prisoner cohort.  The worst tend to big bigger, more overcrowded, and have a high churn of prisoners.

Yet overall, it is hard not to concur with the recently departed Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, who said last week that overall prisons in England and Wales have been rapidly deteriorating since 2010 for a variety of reasons.  Some are directly the response of budget cuts across the public sector including a 25 per cent reduction on spending in prisons (yet cuts in other social provision impacts on prisons, as they are largely a dumping ground for society’s problem people). Some of the problems in our prisons are resultant from wider transformations and shifts -for example it is hard to understate the negative impact new psychoactive substances (or ‘legal highs’) have had on prisons. The associated problems of debt and indebtedness are also certainly part of the rising tide of prison violence.  Yet to focus on prisons, and to talk of rehabilitative prisons may be very misplaced.  It may also miss the bigger picture.

So today the PM announced six new rehabilitation prisons, but spectacularly missed that for the most part, that very term is an oxymoron.  Prisons incapacitate and they hold people, some do better at rehabilitation, but for their high cost, they are spectacular failures at doing anything like rehabilitating those put in them.  Even the very best prisons see a reconviction rate of over 50 per cent of the prisoners released from them and that is measured over a period of just two years! We have known this since American academics like Robert Martinson started to look at big data on recidivism and rehabilitation programmes in the 1970s.  Cameron also announced a drive to make the way our prisons operate more transparent by developing proper data and meaningful metrics so we can easily compare prison performance.  Again, I could somewhat preempt this here, the data will no doubt show little variations in performance between individual prisons and the managing governors in them. But after the costly exercise of gathering them I can predict that they will tell us absolutely what we already know.

Rehabilitation in the community for many of those in prison would be no less effective.  And this is the crux.  For about 80 per cent of our current prison population, prison is a bad idea.  They are there not because they are a danger to the public, but because they are socially inadequate.  They are mentally ill, poor, poorly educated, unemployed, and lacking in even basic life skills. This might sound pejorative, but it’s true, and you will not rehabilitate those socially inadequate people in jail.  You just won’t. You will spend £25,000 per annum or more on them, but by and large you won’t change them, you won’t change the prospects for their children, you won’t stop their offending, you won’t get them jobs, you won’t re-educate or change them, and you will not increase their pro-social attitudes or victim empathy.  If you want to deal with them effectively, you try something different to prison – and traditionally we called that punishment in the community.  It was something that was largely developed in the UK and as a model of practice, it was spread around the world.  Many countries looked in envy at the system that the UK had developed and attempted to mimic it.  And then the Conservatives changed it, and things went quite wrong…

The Government and the Ministry of Justice called this sell off ‘Transforming Rehabilitation: a strategy for reform’, it was the concept of Chris Grayling. The central component of Transforming Rehabilitation was the split of the then probation service into two. The National Probation Service was much reduced and tasked with managing high risk offenders and servicing the courts. The remaining 70 per cent of its then function – interventions and the management of low and medium risk offenders – was outsourced to new providers known as Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs).  The story is too long to tell here, but already the fall out has been nothing short of a disaster and the squandering of a once effective service that a far lesser cost than prison did quite well at seeing that those it was charged with supervising did not re-offend.  This happened on David Cameron’s watch, under his government.  It also might explain now why many academics and criminal justice practitioners are so reluctant to believe his statements on prison reform.

Where those academic and practitioners would likely agree, I have few doubts, is with the need to reduce reoffending and the number of future victims. To achieve this though, we need a tough but intelligent criminal justice system that punishes people properly when they break the law, but also supports them so they don’t commit crime in the future.  What this government actually did last time it ushered in reform was split up and sell off the extremely effective and well regarded National Probation Service in a fire sale that has proved nothing short of disastrous.  The claim that the government now we will solve our social problems with new reforms and rehabilitative prisons is one that needs to be carefully watched. History tells us that when this government commits to reform in criminal justice, the real results are often far from ideal.

Find out more about studying social sciences at Birmingham City University.

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