Blink and you would have missed the Justice Select Committee Report on prisons, neatly buried on budget day. Former CEO of NOMS, Phil Wheatley is quoted: ‘If you want to find out what is going on in prison, ask a prisoner.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself, but reading the report, the average observer of penal policy would be unlikely to ask the same question of Chris Grayling.
Given the book ban that wasn’t, the staffing crisis that isn’t, the mere blip that is the rise in suicide and violence and the prison population increase solely down to Jimmy Savile, one wonders about the parallel worlds of politics and real life.
Sir Alan Beith’s committee has produced an incisive and forensic analysis of the Grayling years. It welcomes the need to cut costs and embraces the logic of ‘benchmarking’, the Prison Service’s method of comparative costs.
It is ironic that it was this system that caused Grayling to stop the ‘whole prison’ privatisation programme. He astutely concluded that such a programme was cumbersome and slow to present cost savings. He saw in the prison service’s attempts to compete commercially with the private sector the opportunity for more rapid cost cutting.
If the prison service could cut costs as part of limited competitive tendering it could do the same across the entire service as a matter of principle. A mixed economy programme is now underway with a host of ancillary services being identified for market testing. Much of it makes sense. The prison service remains probably the last bastion of a public service with in house facilities management. Outsourcing it to specialised suppliers merely brings it in line with the rest of the world.
The Committee expresses its support for a rationale that has underpinned the operation of the prison service over the last few years, of running prisons more efficiently. It also supports its policy of replacing old prisons albeit with considerable reservations. The issue is less of the ‘what’ and more about its reservations of the ‘how’. The need to cut costs is inescapable but the report challenges assumptions and evidence and most importantly deals with its view of current and future consequences.
It does not accept that ‘big is beautiful’ when it comes to places of incarceration, especially for young people. It opines the ‘small custodial units are safer and more humane for children and young people’ and goes further saying ‘ relationship between the size and effectiveness of do not appear to have been addressed by Government’. Arguments for large multi-functional jails giving low cost per prisoner headlines were challenged by many witnesses to the committee which accepted the need for more nuanced, evidence based, approach to the expenditure of large amounts of tax-payer cash.
And although it accepts the financial and operational advantages of a mixed economy in prison it warns: ‘Prison governors in public sector prisons and some private sector prisons are no longer responsible for the sum total of everything that happens within their prison walls. There is a risk that the proliferation of partner organisations providing services to prisons could distract prison management teams from their core role.’
In other words, it asks the vital question of what the prison governor is there for. Should he or she be a mere contract manager or someone leading a complex community and driving forward cultural change. The committee recognized some crucial policy decisions removed from them: ‘They are also constrained in their operational decisions when decisions are taken from the centre on such matters as the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, the ‘lights out’ policy and release on temporary licence.’
The Committee recognizes the continued pressures on the system of overcrowding but does not accept the concept of prison as a ‘free good’. It asks sensible questions about alternatives to imprisonment as a way of cutting costs. It also asks about the overemphasis on security for a prison population where so many are sentenced to short sentences and close to release. It highlights from its overseas visits, countries like Denmark where the default is cheaper open prisons with the more secure incarceration left for those who need it.
End of term report
Sir Alan’s end of term report ends with a timely reflection: ‘General Elections have a tendency to produce the wrong kind of debate on criminal justice policy, with a competition as to who can sound toughest, rather than an examination of the evidence on what works.’
He joins many in the criminal justice arena in appealing for a rational and evidence-based discussion on criminal justice policy in the next Parliament. However whatever one’s view over the past few years of penal policy or expectations in May’s election, it is unlikely that Messrs Grayling and Sealous will be around for their mistakes to catch up with them.
Nor looking at previous Government transitions, is it likely that their shadows, Sadiq Khan and Jenny Chapman will pick up the baton even if there were to be a straightforward outcome from the electorate. It has never been that simple. There is some unsuspecting, aspiring member of a government out there for whom the poisoned chalice awaits. It would be nice to think they would have a background of criminal justice and/or social welfare, an engager in debate and an examiner of evidence. But if not, let’s just settle for payment by results.
John is Professor of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Durham, author and freelance criminal justice consultant. He worked in the Prison Service for 25 years and governed three prisons – Belmarsh, Swaleside and Brixton - and spent three years as an inspector of prisons.