Michael Gove outlined his plans for ‘reform prisons’ based on academy schools with increasing autonomy for governors and quality underpinned by league tables, in his appearance before the House of Commons’ justice committee this morning.
The justice secretary told the MPs that he was planning to publish a white paper this spring, and summed up his approach to prison policy as ‘turning prisoners from liabilities into assets’.
Gove set his plans for what he called ‘freestanding reform prisons’, which he clarified, would remain in the public sector. ‘To allow governors to have a considerably greater degree of freedom, we need to create a new legal status in the same way that the Blair government created a unique status for academy schools,’ he explained.
The minister wanted to create a ‘legal foundation’ that could allow for ‘groups of prisons led by a strong governor, who was made a significant difference in one prison and who can then take on others, in the same way that headteachers in academy chains have’. He flagged up the possibility of better performing prisons becoming ‘the improvement partner’ of weaker ones – ‘in the same way we have seen in schools – and in the NHS – where we have seen strong foundation trusts taking weaker ones under their wing’.
‘We all know that keeping people in prison costs the state. Even before they ended up in custody, many will have not just cost taxpayers money but brought misery into the lives of others and themselves… . I hope that the criminal justice system and, in particular, prison will give those individuals the chance to reflect and rebuild their lives and give the state the chance to turn them into people who can contribute.’
The justice secretary also set out plans for prison league tables comprising what he called ‘aspirational measurements’ to compare prisons over three to five year periods. The tables would have metrics such as the number of qualifications that prisoners were securing and a prison’s achievement of ‘resettlement goals’. Gove also said there would be ‘dipstick measures’, enabling people to compare how prisons were performing on a weekly basis featuring ‘key indicators’ such as time spent out of a cell.
The minster was asked how the Ministry of Justice could meaningfully rank high security prisons like HMP Long Lartin (‘which houses terrorists and people with serious jihadi pasts’) with low security prisons. ‘Where previous governments were thinking about introducing tables in education, similar arguments were made. For example, how can you compare school in Tower Hamlets or Ealing with a large multicultural intake with a school in Herefordshire? The experience of school league tables shows that once you start measuring, you generate progress,’ Gove said.
The minister was also asked whether a program of prison reform could succeed in the context of ‘extreme overcrowding’. He took issue with the question. ‘We do have a problem with crowding. I would not say overcrowding,’ he said; adding that his ‘ideal’ would be ‘one prisoner in each room’. Gove warned of ‘over-fixating’ on numbers. ‘There is a danger of being paralysed by the thought that we cannot make any changes unless we reduce population,’ he said.
Whilst Gove confirmed plans to push on with shutting down ‘ageing and ineffective’ Victorian prisons as part of a ‘new-for-old’ prison building scheme, he was short on detail. ‘We have made it clear that there are some prisons – apart from Holloway, none have been named – that will close down,’ he said. ‘We hope we can get a good deal for the taxpayer and then reinvest in more humane decent and more productive sites elsewhere.’
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award