With a complete set of new Justice Ministers now in place, a question mark hangs over the future of the Government’s prison reform agenda. Criminal justice organisations wasted no time in urging new Secretary of State Liz Truss to build on the momentum for change created by her predecessor and to take forward an approach which “will deliver local accountability, build job prospects, cut prisoner numbers, lift the aspirations of prison officers and put education and rehabilitation at the heart of our justice system”.
Will she do so? Using her first full day in office to visit two London prisons was a promising signal of continuity but how might the change of personnel and post Brexit politics affect the development of penal policy?
As things stand, this spring’s Queen’s speech will continue to define the government’s programme, with a promise to legislate to reform prisons and courts “to give individuals a second chance”. The Prison and Courts Reform Bill will be designed to give prison governors “unprecedented freedom and they will be able to ensure prisoners receive better education. Old and inefficient prisons will be closed and new institutions built where prisoners can be put more effectively to work”. The day before his departure, Michael Gove told the Justice Select Committee to expect a White paper in the autumn and the bill, (possibly in draft form) in the New Year.
There no reason that Ms Truss and her team shouldn’t deliver on that timetable but they will want to make their mark on the proposals. Back in 2011, in a book she co-authored with four other new MP’s, Ms Truss wrote that “we are not ashamed to say that prisons should be tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places. That’s the point of them”. To be fair, After the Coalition: a Conservative Agenda for Britain also argued for constructive prison regimes that promote work, training and alcohol and drug rehabilitation, but made clear these should be strict “to promote some measure of discipline”. Expect therefore a harder edge to the reforms with access to rehabilitation contingent on good behaviour or a wider range of punishments for those who don’t comply.
There is still a lack of clarity about what level of autonomy the Governors of so called Reform Prisons will actually be able to enjoy. Gove promised to send the Justice Committee a list of the Prison service Instructions and Orders which these six Governors are permitted to ignore. New ministers may feel the need to take a close look at it in case they are allowing “prisoners to be treated in a way that reflect the normal life of freedom that all citizens generally enjoy”- an approach which despite being part of international norms and standards, appeared to disturb Ms Truss and her co-authors in 2011.
Expect too a close look at Mr Gove’s plans however tentative to reduce the prison population. After the Coalition argued that public confidence needed to be restored to the justice system “by seeking longer, tougher prison sentences” and by changing early release requirements which see offenders “frequently let out far too early”. Unless she has changed her views, Ms Truss’s appointment may spell bad news for IPP prisoners and those who might have benefitted from greater opportunities for release on temporary licence. When he last answered Justice Questions, Gove agreed with Bob Neill MP that his reforms were part of a broader change to the criminal justice system, “and part of that is diverting people from custody when appropriate”. The new Secretary of State may not agree.
In their book, Ms Truss and colleagues wanted longer sentences not only to protect the public but to provide greater opportunities for rehabilitation. They argued that these could be made affordable by freeing up prison space through deporting foreign criminals and making the NHS take responsibility for the significant proportion of prisoners who are seriously mentally ill. The first of these proposals could well be made more difficult by Brexit and while some of the millions a week for health promised by Leave campaigners could conceivably be used to fund the second, it seems a long shot.
Indeed, the likely squeeze on public spending and fall in property prices could well force the Treasury to revisit the £1.3 billion prison modernisation programme. Only Holloway and Kennett have been confirmed for closure with decisions on new sites yet to be finalised. Expect a significantly diluted plan to emerge later in the year. The new secure schools being proposed by Charlie Taylor’s youth justice review will most likely go the way of the Secure College abandoned by Gove a year ago.
In his last appearance at the Justice Committee, Gove was asked if things go wrong in the reform prisons, where accountability lies. With me, he replied. Now Gove has gone, his successor must decide whether to reply in the same way, not only in respect of the prisons but the broader policy context in which they sit.
Rob is an independent researcher and consultant and co-founder of Justice and Prisons. A former director of the International Centre for Prison Studies, Rob is currently an associate of Penal Reform International