In May last year I was among more than a hundred organisational representatives who trooped over to the (unfortunately named given current events in Syria and Iraq) Isis youth prison in south east London.
The purpose of our excursion was to hear a speech by the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, on the Ministry of Justice’s new Education and Employment Strategy.
In his speech, Gauke stressed the importance he placed on offering prisoners short-term release from prison – known at "release on temporary licence" (ROTL) – to help them prepare for life after prison. The government, he told us, was committed to "expanding and increasing the use of release of prisoners on temporary licence for work". ROTL, he said, offered “a powerful incentive to promote good behaviour in prison” and had "an important role to play in reducing the levels of violence and disorder in prisons".
And there was this:
"By expanding the use of ROTL for work, more prisoners will not only be able to get a foot through the door… but employers will be better able to fill short-term skills gaps whilst also developing potential permanent employees for the longer term. That in my eyes is a 'win-win'."
Given this ringing endorsement, I would love to have been a fly on the wall in Mr Gauke’s office when news came in that the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, had praised the Governor of Brixton Prison in south London for banning the use of ROTL in his prison. There was “some concern”, Clarke wrote in the Introduction to his recent report on Brixton, that the prison inspectorate “would criticise the decision”. But no.
"Far from criticising, I congratulate the senior management for having the courage to take this essential step. I believe the right balance was struck between assessing the impact that losing ROTL opportunities would have for some prisoners, and the catastrophic effect that illicit drugs were having within the prison".
The Model for Operational Delivery for the resettlement prisons – those institutions expressly tasked with preparing prisoners for release – was published in April this year. It states that the "best Resettlement Prisons are likely to run effective and safe ROTL policies which maximise its use". In one of those "couldn't make it up" moments that are all too common in British politics these days, Brixton is, yes, a resettlement prison.
The ban on ROTL at Brixton was already in full swing when Gauke committed the government to increasing its use. It would be interesting to know who, in the Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice, knew what, and when. If Gauke was kept in the dark, it does strike me that he has been badly let down by his officials.
Clarke described the ban as a "determined, pragmatic and bold approach taken to dealing with the problem of illicit drugs which had been dominating prison life and driving very high levels of violence". The ban on ROTL does appear to have coincided with a reduction in both reported violent incidents and the availability and use of drugs in the prison. But pragmatism without principle tends to undermine important practices and policies, in a process akin to death by a thousand cuts.
The road to hell, one might say, is sometimes paved with a succession of pragmatic decisions.
That said, it is possible to set a pragmatic course that might genuinely address the current crisis in our prisons. Brixton, for example, is 200 years old, having started life in 1819 as the Surrey House of Correction. It is an anachronism: a nineteenth-century solution to a twenty-first century problem.
Clarke's report notes that "far too many cells designed for one person were holding two, and conditions were unacceptably cramped". Brixton, he acknowledges, "will always be a difficult prison to keep safe, decent and purposeful".
An obvious, quintessentially pragmatic, solution presents itself: a detailed, serious and comprehensive plan to close down Brixton, and prisons like it, as part of a long-term strategy to downsize our prison system and address our scandalous tendency to imprison the poor, the socially vulnerable, and the mentally ill.
Whilst a challenging notion for some, closing down prisons only appears radical because we find it so difficult to imagine a world less dominated by prisons.
The straws in the wind are, nonetheless, there. Last year, Gauke told The Times that he "would like [the prison population]… to fall". A couple of years' ago, the Conservative chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee, Bob Neill, said that "we should be looking to start reducing the prison population straight away".
In 2016, Nick Clegg, a former deputy prime minister, Ken Clarke, a former justice secretary and home secretary, and Jacqui Smith, a former home secretary, called for a halving of the prison population.
Talk, of course, is cheap. Turning talk into action requires an active decision, by politicians and policy makers, actually to close prisons. It also requires them to reject the current policy of replacing old capacity with newer, bigger prisons. That way only leads to continued prison growth.
That one response to violence in our prisons – lauded by the Inspectorate and welcomed by certain prison reformers – involves the active sabotage of one of the few policies that positively benefits prisoners, tells us much about the limits to meaningful reform within the current policy context.
It is time to do better, to start challenging the self-imposed boundaries on our collective imagination, and chart a radical, pragmatic course towards a future where the resort to imprisonment is far less common.