Yesterday’s Queen’s Speech promised the ‘biggest shakeup of prisons since Victorian times’ and a renewed commitment to scrapping the human rights act. If introduced, the Prisons Bill would create league tables for reoffending, employment rates, violence and self-harm, and give governors in six prison sites unprecedented freedom to control their budgets and opt out of national contracts.
The government also returned to its plans to push on with a British Bill of Rights to (in its words) restore ‘common sense’ to human rights legislation. Liberty said it was a proposal ‘worthy of the Donald Trump campaign trail’. ‘From Hillsborough to Deepcut, the Government must listen to the thousands who have relied on the Act for protection, truth and justice and dump this troubled policy once and for all,’ said Bella Sankey, policy director for Liberty. There was also a Counter-extremism and safeguarding bill that would see hate preachers hit with ASBO style orders designed to stamp out their ‘brainwashing’ of youngsters; powers for ministers to intervene on councils which fail to tackle extremism; and powers to ban radicals from coing into contact with the you (for example, as teachers).
Under the Prison Bill, governors would also be given ‘operational freedoms’ over family visits, education, the prison regime, and partnerships to provide prison work and rehabilitation services. According to the Ministry of Justice, new legislation would enable prisons to be established as’ independent legal entities with the power to enter into contracts; generate and retain income; and establish their own boards with external expertise. This will amount to the biggest structural reform of the prisons system for more than a century’.
The Prime Minister said it was ‘a One Nation Queen’s speech from a One Nation government’. ‘For too long, we have left our prisons to fester. Not only does that reinforce the cycle of crime, increasing the bills of social failure that taxpayers must pick up. It writes off thousands of people,’ he said.
Richard Garside, writing for the Justice Gap, yesterday said that the proposals for reform prisons was ‘a tragic distraction from the big challenges of prison reform‘. ‘The proposition that reform-minded prison governors should have greater autonomy from what can be experienced as a stifling head office bureaucracy has a superficial appeal. But behind this lurks a multitude of problems,’ he argued.
Last year, the Government commissioned a review of education in prisons. Dame Sally Coates lead the review and advocated the increased use of ‘in-cell technology, such as iPads, so prisoners can learn independently’. Other recommendations involved the capacity of prison staff and the learning needs of different types of prisoners.
Rod Clark, chief executive of the Prisoners’ Education Trust, said he welcomed the far-reaching review ‘and particularly [Coates’s] call for a common sense approach to the use of technology in prisons’.
The Prime Minister commented that the move towards modernising the prison system would ‘revolutionise’ sentencing by enabling prisoners to keep full-time jobs during the week and spend their weekends in custody.
The announcement of six trailblazer sites in London, the East Midlands and north-east, including HMP Wandsworth, one of the largest prisons, means that more than 5,000 offenders will be housed in new style ‘reform prisons’ by the end of this year.
Speaking in response to today’s announcements however, shadow justice secretary Charles Falconer said: ‘Prison reform is long overdue so I welcome the announcements from the Queen’s Speech but the reality is that we have been down this road before with David Cameron and he has failed to deliver every time.
To suggest that this is a One Nation speech is ridiculous considering that he has presided over a prison system which has seen huge reductions in staff while the prison population has continued to rise and rise.’
Rob Clark summed up the reforms by saying: ‘For too long, jails in England and Wales have languished in a pre-internet dark age, with prisoners struggling to find a computer to type on, let alone gain internet access.’
Alex is a human rights researcher and barrister. He has worked around the world, providing legal research to human rights NGOs and parliamentarians.