The Pressing Need for Prison Reform
Bill Hartley reports
David Cameron’s recent speech on prison reform was a welcome entry into the world of criminal justice by a prime minister. The full text of his speech is worth a look because it does show a detailed understanding of the problem. What the government proposes is the creation of several pilot prisons which will be given the opportunity to operate rather like free schools; able to secure services on their own initiative without recourse to central contracts. Whilst such an idea is to be encouraged it is worth seeing what the reformers are up against.
For the last twenty years or so the Prison Service has been dragging everything back to the centre.
The name National Offender Management Service (NOMS) uniting prison and probation services is a clue. Even the most modest local ideas have been smothered. An example of this would be the suppression of the Kairos scheme, a harmless initiative which sought to run a prison wing according to Christian principles. Prisoners didn’t need to be Christians, they simply had to sign up to live according to the principles. Even this was unacceptable : everything was to flow from the centre. Hence the prime minister noted in his speech that there are only four education providers for the entire public sector prison network. Imagine how difficult it is to tailor one of these contracts to meet the needs of one small prison.
Breathing down the necks of governors were area managers now called deputy directors, each augmented by their own secretariat and charged with micro managing every aspect of a prison’s performance. Any governor guilty of drifting too far from central command and worse attempting to justify it on the grounds of prisoner rehabilitation, was rapidly dealt with. The most notorious example being at Blantyre House where the jail was raided by a team assembled from other prisons and the governor removed.
These days they advertise for graduate entrants into the prison service by asking, ‘do you like meeting targets?’ They’d better, because this is how they have been judged for the past twenty years. Governors desirous of developing a successful career in the service soon learnt the tricks of the trade. Back in the seventies and eighties some governors were criticised for doing no more than managing the status quo (although keeping the inmates of a huge overcrowded penal warehouse fed, clothed and housed was a challenge in itself). Even so there were other inspirational governors particularly in the ‘training’ prisons who created some brilliant schemes. For example at Askham Grange the governor turned his jail into a conference centre. Such people and their tradition of innovation are long gone. Today the successful career minded governor has several priorities: getting a decent report after a visit by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, achieving a good score following an audit and ensuring a range of performance targets are met, month in, month out. Some positive publicity for the jail doesn’t hurt either. Fail in one of these areas or indeed appear to be failing and the deputy director might start to worry about his job too. A long time ago their area manager predecessors thought they’d been promoted up to another secure civil service post until several were purged. The fear factor generated from the centre has been central to Prison Service life ever since. At Durham Prison some years ago the governor got the go ahead to attempt a restructuring exercise.
Part of this included the creation of a post to lead on community liaison and local rehabilitation initiatives, very much like what is being proposed now. At the eleventh hour he learned that the prison was to be given a new role and his priority was now negotiation with the trades unions on staff reductions.
The intention is to set set up these pilot prisons where governors are masters of their own destiny. Presumably some brave individuals will come forward to embrace the challenge. The more cautious schooled in the decades old culture of performance management will stick with what they know best. We are two generations away from the people who joined the Prison Service because they wanted to make a difference.
Making this happen will also depend on a motivated and dedicated team, both managers and uniformed staff. The former though have been deeply schooled in the performance culture. A functional head who can hit targets or produce a good audit score is a valuable asset to a governor. These people have had to learn their jobs the hard way (there is no practical training) and it will present a severe challenge to get them to change course and become innovators. There is too a major problem with prison officers. Recent restructuring of the service has created a group of men and women who feel vulnerable and undervalued. As the prime minister mentioned in his speech the number of assaults on staff is running at a rate of ninety per week. Officers who use force robustly may find themselves suspended and under investigation by risk averse management. For the prisoner assaulting an officer is a less hazardous enterprise. Naturally the official line comes with the slogan; ‘we always seek to prosecute’ which really means, ‘we’ll pass the case over to the police and Crown Prosecution Service’. If nothing comes of this then don’t blame us; we picked up the telephone.
The other problem these pilot prisons will have is the loss of a working week. It is all very well relying on education and training, with governors being free to shop around for providers of services but the one thing prisoners should be getting in prison to support everything else, a work ethic, is missing. Like local initiatives prison farms and industries disappeared a long time ago, mostly because they were too much trouble to run. Besides the new approach was central contracts delivering education and training with completions (finishing the course) providing value for money. It will be interesting to see if an entrenched performance bureaucracy will let governors get on with it. Deputy directors in particular will be nervous about having some governors free to behave as they did back in the eighties.
Essentially part of the Prison Service, now an element in the NOMS monolith, is being given a chance to go back to the future and reshape itself in the image of what it was decades ago. Here’s hoping it succeeds but governors are going to have meet the twin challenges of keeping one eye on the ‘corporate assurance’ bureaucracy whilst looking for ways to innovate and wondering which measure will be used to judge them.
BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service