Not in the job description

Richard Garside
Friday, 18 December 2020

Is it the job of the Chief Inspector of Prisons to lobby the government to build new prisons?

The answer should be no. The Chief Inspector's job is to inspect prisons, report on conditions and make recommendations for improvements.

Yet in last week's Spectator magazine, the newly-appointed Chief Inspector, Charlie Taylor, called on the government to get on with building a new children's prison, or 'Secure School', to use the preferred euphemism, on the site of the notorious Medway Secure Training Centre. Moreover, the Christian charity selected to run the new prison, he wrote, should be given "the freedom to... deliver good discipline, bespoke education and therapeutic care".

The long history of well-meaning, but failed, reform efforts should caution us against "this time it will be different" boosterism. The 'Secure School' plan remains highly controversial in youth justice and prison reform circles. The role of a religious charity in running a supposedly secular institution has also raised eyebrows. The Charity Commission has questioned whether running a prison can be considered a charitable purpose at all.

Charlie Taylor is in a good position to extol what he considers to be the virtues of the 'Secure School' model. It was his 2016 report that recommended their creation.

But lobbying for new prisons to be built is not in the job description of the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and for good reason.

At the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies we are in favour of prison being closed down, not new prisons being built. But we would not cheer on the Chief Inspector of Prisons were he to lobby for decarceration. Nor do we welcome his call for new prisons to be built.

To be effective, the Chief Inspector of Prisons should offer independent, impartial and trusted assessments of the state of prisons. Not intervene on one side or the other of controversial or partisan policy questions.

I wish Charlie Taylor every success in his new and important role and hope that last week's article was a one-off.