Howard League blog · 5 Jun 2017
Reform prisons – just a title
There were reports in the media that Wandsworth prison has officially lost ‘reform’ status. Actually it never really had it. Neither did any of the other prisons that were given the title. For, title was all it really was.
Of course, there were also the highly paid additional governors who were imposed on top of the existing governors, thus downgrading experienced local people and diluting their powers. There was irony in the puff that governors would be given new powers, but in fact the reform prisons had super-governors imposed, which meant that, far from giving greater autonomy to real governors, it reduced their power.
In fact, the whole idea of ‘reform prisons’ was a bit of a publicity stunt as nothing much changed on the ground. When I visited the prisons I was shown a lot of things that were going to happen, but nothing much that had happened. The prisons never got a stand-alone budget and the power to buy in their services.
The Prisons and Courts Bill published in March this year indicated that all prisons would be places of reform but the main avenue to achieve that would be the creation of league tables. Despite some confusion about what this meant, it appeared that there would be no additional resources apart from the futile attempts to replace staff posts that had only recently been cut.
The incoming Secretary of State, whether the old one continues or a new person takes over, will have a gargantuan task on their hands
This is a pity, because giving back to governing governors their own budget and some autonomy to make choices according to local conditions and needs was a good idea. It still is a good idea. The problem was that trying to impose a system based on school management structures in a half-hearted way was just a mess.
Prisons are not like schools. Clustering prisons under super-governors who helicopter in occasionally makes the day to day staff feel under-valued and delays decision making. There have been lots of attempts to do this over the years, mostly just to save money, but they have never worked.
A prison needs a governor. Prisons work best when there is a clear line of accountability with someone who is known to staff and inmates. A prison is a living community that has to be fine-tuned daily to be safe and purposeful.
Since the election was called, little has happened in prisons and they continue to be crime-ridden, filthy, violent, drug-addled places of extreme misery and purposelessness. The incoming Secretary of State, whether the old one continues or a new person takes over, will have a gargantuan task on their hands.
Power devolution can inject some energy into the system, but it is not going to solve the intractable problems faced daily by staff and prisoners. The long-term solution must be to cut the population. But that will take a brave politician. I have my fingers crossed.