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Howard League blog · 10 Dec 2021

The Prisons Strategy White Paper

On Tuesday, the government published its delayed Prisons Strategy White Paper. It’s not all terrible. Some of the ideas in the White Paper could begin to address prisons’ dire record on safety, education, work and resettlement, and the Howard League has long supported more autonomy for prison governors. However, the overall strategic vision is one which will send more people to prison every year, compounding the very problems that the White Paper seeks to solve.

The proposed investment in improvements to the existing prison system, or on measures which will support people on release, is nothing compared to the £4 billion dedicated to new prison places. The White Paper suggests that the women’s estate will become more trauma-informed by creating more prison places for women, even though imprisonment is inherently retraumatising. It calls for regimes which promote hope and engagement but fails to offer any expectations about what an engaging regime might look like.

Strikingly, as the government introduces measures to restrict the spread of an alarming new variant, the White Paper refers to the Covid-19 pandemic only in passing. Even then, it is treated as an event which has already taken place and can now be learnt from. In practice, we are only now beginning to see the impact of locking people in their cells for up to 23 hours a day for an extended period.

In its thematic review on prisoners’ experience during the pandemic, published in February, the prison inspectorate found that prisoners struggled to cope with restricted regimes once they were clearly out-of-step with restrictions in the community. Recent reports have suggested that ongoing restrictions help to explain violence at HMP Erlestoke and acute mental health crises at Bullingdon. Though the White Paper proposes that prison governors design future regimes over the next two years, it offers little insight about how prisons are expected to deal with the next stage of the pandemic or what should come afterwards.

The White Paper represents a doubling down on the commitment to lock up more people for longer, while aspiring to improve the system. Fundamentally, it can’t do both.

The other ideas in the White Paper are similarly vague, even those which the government has been mulling over for half a decade. The White Paper includes several recycled proposals from the Prison Safety and Reform White Paper published in 2016, without much sign that they have been considered in greater detail during the intervening five years.

For example, as in 2016, the White Paper proposes new league tables to benchmark prison performance. This met with a mixed response last time, and Sam Gyimah, the then Prisons and Probation Minister, seemed to row back on it in evidence to the parliamentary Justice Committee the following year. He suggested that although the White Paper had explicitly committed to publishing league tables, this was a misleading description and “[w]e will not rank prisons from the best performing to the lowest performing”. The Ministry of Justice was instead working to develop “a prisons data hub, which will provide the data in a number of ways to make it accessible to the public”. The performance data would not drive interventions by the Secretary of State, but it would be useful to the public in the same way that school performance data was useful to parents. He did not explain how the relationship between the public and prisons could be analogous to the relationship between parents and schools.

The current White Paper restates the proposal on league tables, without addressing the concerns raised by the Justice Committee and others. It does not give any real sense of what the league tables might look like or which concrete outcomes they will include, though vaguely worded new performance measures are dotted through the report.

The White Paper is light on detail about how the new outcomes will be measured or how the new system will relate to existing performance measures and ratings (which are published annually and are also available in a more accessible map form). It does not mention the prisons data hub which civil servants were working hard on in 2017 and it is not clear whether, this time, the claim that “[w]e will regularly publish key performance indicators, targets and league tables” means that the Ministry of Justice really intends to publish league tables.

The White Paper is out for consultation until 4 February, and we will use this period to carefully consider the government’s proposals. On first read, however, the new strategy comes across as counterproductive and counterintuitive. It fails to recognise the real source of problems in the prison estate: an ever-growing prison population which is predicted to reach almost 100,000 in the next five years. The White Paper represents a doubling down on the commitment to lock up more people for longer, while aspiring to improve the system. Fundamentally, it can’t do both.

Andrea Coomber

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