The Prime Minister and Justice Secretary prefer to play at being prison reformers, rather than doing the hard work involved, argues Richard Garside
Given the parlous state of prisons across England and Wales, a reform-minded Justice Minister like Michael Gove has ample opportunity to make his mark.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, told the BBC earlier this week that some prisons were 'not fit for purpose' and were failing to keep prisoners safe.
The BBC revealed that the emergency services were called out more than 26,600 times – or every 20 minutes on average – to incidents in UK prisons last year.
A House of Commons Justice Committee report, also out this week, found there had been 100 suicides in prison in the twelve months to March 2016, up from 79 the previous year. To put this in perspective, there were 37 suicides in prison in 1988; 16 in 1978.
Assaults and self-harm in prisons are also on the rise.
The Ministry of Justice had hoped 'that prison safety would stabilise', the Conservative Chair of the Committee Bob Neill, said. 'In reality it has deteriorated further and continues to do so. This is a matter of great concern and improvement is urgently needed... This cannot wait'.
So there is more than enough for Michael Gove to do to sort out the system-wide problems in prison. Which is why today's announcement of six 'reform prisons' is such a tragic distraction from the big challenges of prison reform.
The proposition that reform-minded prison governors should have greater autonomy from what can be experienced as a stifling head office bureaucracy has a superficial appeal. But behind this lurks a multitude of problems.
The six reform prisons amount to a mere five percent of the current total of 121 prisons. If the reform prisons are successful on their own terms, the result will be half a dozen oases of progress, lost in a desert of deeply dysfunctional institutions.
The reform prisons proposal is by no stretch of the imagination a serious response to the deep problems affecting the prison system. It is an eye-catching, small-scale experiment that will form the backdrop for shiny ministerial photo-opportunities while doing nothing to address the underlying malaise.
That said, every effort will be made to drive through the reform prison model, at the expense of the wider estate. As today's press release makes clear, the planned nine new-build prisons will also operate on a reform prison model.
The reform prisons are therefore something of a 'proof of concept' experiment, and the shape of things to come across the prison estate.
The proposals for greater governor autonomy also raise major questions. Consider this, from today's press release:
'These prisons will give unprecedented freedoms to prison governors, including financial and legal freedoms, such as how the prison budget is spent and whether to opt-out of national contracts; and operational freedoms over education, the prison regime, family visits, and partnerships to provide prison work and rehabilitation services.'
What does it mean for a governor to have 'operational freedoms' over education, or over family visits? Will it be Ipads and advanced IT skills training, or rote learning and spelling tests? Will it lead to greater family contact, less contact, or 'innovative' approaches that replace human contact with a video conference?
Innovation and greater discretion at an individual institution level, in the absence of national standards and a coherent, estate-wide approach, can easily collapse into the merely idiosyncratic.
Reform prisons, the press release states, will also be established as 'independent legal entities with the power to enter into contracts; generate and retain income; and establish their own boards.'
The idea that prisons should be income-generating entities is hardly a new one. Private prisons have for some years been part of the prison system. But the implication that reform prisons should operate as competitive, risk-taking outfits, pursuing exciting business opportunities to make up for a shortfall in central government funding is profoundly wrongheaded.
What should the basis of a coherent programme of prison reform be?
First, and of critical importance, we need a sustained effort to reduce the currently high prison population. This was a point made only last week by Bob Neill, the former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, and the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Lord Ramsbotham.
Indeed, Bob Neill told the BBC that 'we should be looking to start reducing the prison population straight away'.
Michael Gove has recently emphasised that the government does not intend to use an 'artificial target' to manage down the prison population. We should be clear that the population has been artificially managed up, over a number of years, by successive administrations.
The level of imprisonment in this, and any other country, is in good part a political choice. If we imprisoned today at the rate we imprisoned in the mid-1980s, when Mrs Thatcher was in Downing Street, there would be at least 30,000 fewer people in prison.
The prison system also badly needs institutional stability and action to ground prison regimes in decency and respect: for staff, prisoners, families and visitors. The awful recent case of Shalane Blackwood, who died in prison last year from a burst duodenal ulcer, following neglect by prison staff, is just one example of how far the prison system is from this goal.
So there is much to do on prison reform, to deliver a legacy that any Justice Minister could rightly be proud of. It would also be a hard job to pull off, and a politically controversial programme of reform.
The Prime Minister and current Justice Secretary no doubt understand this well. Which is perhaps why they prefer to play at being prison reformers, rather than doing the hard work involved in being prison reformers.