A view of D wing from the exercise yard at Wandsworth Prison. It has a capacity of 1456 prisoners. Pic by Andrew Aitchison www.prisonimage.org

A view of D wing from the exercise yard at Wandsworth Prison. It has a capacity of 1456 prisoners. Pic by
Andrew Aitchison www.prisonimage.org

When given time to prepare, politicians can demonstrate exceptional presentation skills. Astute political communication often rests on the ability to craft messages to engage the chosen audience on their preferred terrain and to develop a narrative that gives the listener reasons to support the policy proposals being suggested.  

Using this technique it can be possible to develop broad coalitions to support ostensibly simple policy platforms with radical implications, even though the different audiences might be listening from very different standpoints. Being ‘tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime’ is perhaps the most well known example of this technique in the field of criminal justice policy.

Who could possibly disagree? 

Yet, despite being lauded by much of the liberal reform sector for this engaging couplet, the concrete outcome of Tony Blair’s prescription was a rapid expansion in prison numbers and the staffing and operations of criminal justice as a whole. Many, frankly desperate to see the end of Conservative rule, had a valence to hear the message they wanted to hear, ‘tough on the causes’, rather than to look at the policy in the round. When Tony said he was going to be ‘tough on crime’ he meant it, but that was the message heard by the other side of the grand coalition that was ‘New’ Labour.

This experience needs to be considered when appraising the recently announced prison reform policy. 

Assets, not liabilities
Michael Gove has been busy in delivering messages aimed at corralling the reform movement behind the government’s prison transformation programme, with an emphasis on the closure of old prisons, the opening of new estate more able to deliver on rehabilitation, and the idea that prisoners should be seen as ‘assets’ rather than liabilities.

This approach has received a more than warm reception from parts of the reform movement. Rather than despairing about the overall lack of efficacy of the reform strategies since the early 1990s, and the burgeoning of prison numbers, there is an understandable desire to focus on the positive presentational messages that appear to reinforce and reinvigorate reformist ambitions.

Yet, if we listen from a different standpoint the messages being delivered can take on a different hue. It is no secret that the present government is committed to both reducing the size and scope of the state and believes that private delivery of most services should be the preferred policy option. Indeed, over the last generation more and more services, including those for vulnerable groups, such as the frail elderly and children in care, have been transferred to the private sector.

So those in the business of private provision will have had their ears cocked during the various announcements unpacking the prison reform programme to hear what opportunities might be arising. From this standpoint, the government will have left them hopeful that the prison service as a whole is to be opened to full-scale privatisation. 

Preparing for market
Localism is usually thought of as a common good. Indeed, local prisons for local prisoners that family members can be more easily reach is often thought to be a sine qua non of a genuine commitment to rehabilitation. Yet, local management of prisons does not in and of itself promise this and is in fact quite a different proposition.

Its real effect may be to break the existing state-managed system into smaller units that are much easier to contract out or privatise. Creating a market in prison provision requires the break-up of the system, otherwise what is regarded as the necessary competition to produce more effective outcomes will not take place – a public monopoly will just be replaced by a private monopoly.

In his Policy Exchange speech on prisons, the Prime Minister made reference to prison regulations allowing prisoners to have only a certain number of underpants and jigsaws and no more than 12 sheets of music. This can be heard as a call for the relaxation of certain onerous and unnecessary aspects of the punishment regime and a welcome liberalisation.  However, from the perspective of a private investor, this is a signal that an over complex regulatory regime is to be curtailed, with the effect of creating cost savings for any entrepreneur wishing to invest in the prison reform programme. As in other areas of the government’s programme, the emphasis is firmly on a ‘bonfire of the red tape’ with a purpose, the simplification of service delivery processes to allow for the creation of a viable space for market profit to be realised.

The promise to introduce league tables for locally managed prisons creates the impression that prisons will be measured on outcomes for individual prisoners. However, as with school league tables, rather than measuring outcomes for individual students so that parents can judge which school to send their child to, the underlying purpose is to measure one institution against another so that market information can be created that allows competition to be in some way meaningful. 

Markets in punishment and education do not arise as a result of everyday life, the conditions need to be created for them to develop, the ground has to be prepared for their construction. Localism, league tables and deregulation were the tried and tested processes used to the break up and pass into private hands of much of the primary and secondary education system and prepared the way for forced academisation – there is little reason to suppose that a similar method will not be used for the prison system. 

The reader may, or may not, be in favour of private investment in education or the prison system, that is beside the point; what is crucial in politics is that governments will often offer ‘a reason’ or a series of ‘reasons’ in order to draw a coalition behind a policy that has a desired outcome for the policy objective – the ‘real reason’. In the case of prison reform, the real reason may be a long-held government ambition, the delivery of a privatisation programme that began with British Aerospace in 1981 and has been a core purpose of Conservative policy ever since the Ridley Report was drawn up in 1977 in the policy aftermath of the Heath Government.

It is to be expected, as part of building a coalition for the full privatisation of prisons, that government will dress the policy to make it as palatable as possible for the prison reform sector. Talk of belief in redemption, combined with the clothes of localism, an end to over controlling prison regulations, and new prisons offering greater promise of rehabilitation, and the almost subversive comment that prisoners should be seen as ‘assets’, is the type of astute political packaging and communication that is aimed at neutralising opposition to the real reason for reform. 

Profile photo of Will McMahon About Will McMahon
Will is deputy director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. He previously worked at the Child Poverty Action Group, the National Children's Bureau and as a parliamentary researcher

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  • rosemary cantwell April 11, 2016 10:19 am

    Thank you very much for this extremely thought-provoking article. What do you think should happen?

  • Cate April 11, 2016 7:59 pm

    Pretty sure what Cameron and Gove mean by “assets” is slave labour to be exploited by private companies in god awful jobs for slave labour wages and dressed up as “rehabilitation”

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