Michael Gove flagged up the possibility of a white paper on prison reform in the autumn and a determination to act to assist prisoners left languishing on indeterminate sentences.
The justice secretary gave evidence before the House of Commons’ justice committee shortly before Theresa May took over as the new prime minister yesterday. It remains to be seen whether his appearance was his swansong as a prison reformer or not.
Michael Gove recognized that his own job could be about to change imminently – one committee member reflected Tory Brexiteers appeared to have ‘fallen like skittles’ over the last week. However the justice secretary promised that there would be more details about plans for reform prisons as well as prison closures in autumn. ‘Unless we have some of the reforms that we have been talking about then we will not deal with some of the problems around safety and security we are seeing,’ he told MPs. ‘One the concerns I have is the way in which prisoners’ time is deployed and the way in which they are given a sense of hope and optimism.’
The justice secretary was asked by the Conservative MP Alex Chalk if any proposals could deliver on last year’s rhetoric when he took over the post from Chris Grayling (in particular, quoting Winston Churchill saying there was ‘a treasure, if only you can find it, in the heart of every man’ ), especially when prisoners were ‘locked up for the 23 hours a day’.
‘To paraphrase, you have to walk and chew gum at the same time – we have to do both,’ Gove told Chalk. The minister was asked to provide more details on his plans for reform prisons – one MP quoted the prisons inspector’s evidence to the committee saying that there was ‘still a lot of opaqueness’ around the plans. ‘The principle is that a greater degree of autonomy should be made available to the governors,’ Gove explained.
‘Seeing is believing,’ the minister continued. He said it was only 12 days since July 1 when ‘the first reform prison governor was given the opportunity to make changes – and already we are seeing in each of the individual institution steps being taken.’
The justice secretary also flagged up government support for problem-solving courts. He cited as an example the pioneering North Liverpool Community Justice Centre which the Coalition government only closed in 2013 (because the Ministry of Justice claimed there was no evidence as to its positive impact on reoffending). Gove spoke of the positive role in the judiciary ‘actively engaging in diverting people away from custody by ensuring they receive support… to tackle the cause of their offending behaviour’.
‘It is a move away from the traditional role of the judge as an impartial dispenser of the sentence – the old passive face of justice – to a more personal and engaged approach to try and ensure an offenders behaviour is dealt with appropriately.’
The minister stressed the importance of dealing with over 4,000 prisoners serving indeterminate prison sentences (IPPs) sentences despite the sentence being scrapped in 2012. ‘We need to be better at processing those cases,’ he said. ‘If individuals believe they’re going to remain in custody and there is very little they can do to influence that, it creates an atmosphere of frustration and makes the estate less easy to manage.’
The minister said that the 650 IPP prisoners whose tariff was for two years or less were ‘the focus of our greatest attention’. When asked if he would look at changing the release test for such prisoners, he replied: ‘We are actively considering what we can do. But there is “an absolute yes”. We want to make sure we can make progress.’
Earlier in the session Ian Acheson, a senior Home Office official and author of a report on prison radicalisation commissioned by Gove, made the case for ‘incapacitation’ units to deal with Islamist extremist prisoners.
The report, which makes some 68 recommendations and has yet to be published, argues that there is an ‘institutional timidity’ on the part of the prison service in tackling a growing problem. Acheson told MPs that the issue of radicalised prisoners risked undermining Michael Gove’s plans to ‘make prisons places of redemption’. ‘The problem needs to be put back in its box,’ he said. ‘It will infect and pervade prisons otherwise.’ Proposals are likely to include increased training for prison officers and a to increase the number of Muslim staff.
Acheson, a former prison governor, said that there was ‘a small number’ of prisoners whose behaviour was ‘so egregious in relation to proselytising this pernicious ideology, this lethal nihilistic death cult ideology’ but their influence was ‘magnified’ in the ‘breeding dish’ of prisons full of ‘young, impulsive and often highly violent men’.
Acheson’s report will make the case for those people to be placed in units ‘completely physically isolated from the rest of the prison grounds’ as opposed to dispersing such prisoners.
Michael Gove told MPs that the government had accepted ‘the overwhelming majority of his recommendations’. He said its implementation needed the cooperation of other government departments but there was ‘no opposition’.
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