Howard League blog · 22 Jun 2017
The Queen’s Speech and prison reform
The first duty of government is to keep citizens safe. Over the past few years this has happened as crime has fallen. But there are still intractable problems and the Queen’s Speech singularly ignored one of the most corrosive and potentially explosive – prisons.
Prisons are in a shambles. They are riven with violence, drugs, assaults and people so desperately miserable that they injure themselves. On release more crime is committed. I have been working with prisons for three decades and I have never seen such terrible conditions for prisoners and staff.
Prior to the election, the Prisons and Courts Bill had included some tentative measures to address these problems. Liz Truss had secured significant funding to recruit more staff and to enhance wages. She was promoting the ‘Unlocked’ scheme to recruit top graduates to work as prison officers, a programme similar to Teach First that has helped struggling schools. I think she recognised that these measures would not ease pressure in the system and in my conversations with her I got the impression that she was going to put pressure on probation and CRCs to reduce recalls in order to stem the flow into prisons.
I have been working with prisons for three decades and I have never seen such terrible conditions for prisoners and staff.
It was shocking that on the day the Queen omitted mention of prison or penal reform, the inspectorates of prison and probation published their joint findings that the privatised community rehabilitation companies are failing so badly that it would make no difference if they simply went away. The failure to care for people coming out of prison results in repeated recalls. Just this month we published research showing that an extra 13,000 people have been sent back to prison.
The primary mission of the Howard League is to work for safer communities. To achieve this we work to keep people out of the system as far as possible and we work to make sure the penal system is proportionate, just, humane and effective. It is not delivering justice if it keeps recalling people for trivial reasons, indeed, this cultivates crime in crowded prisons and the failure to support on release.
I hope that the omission from the Queen’s Speech does not mean that penal reform has been abandoned. I have written to the new Secretary of State, David Lidington, with suggestions for immediate action that will ease the pressure on the prisons, with one element being reducing recalls. In the long run we need sentencing reform to deal with inflated sentencing in both custodial and community sentences.
Without legislation, the secretary of state will have to rely on bold and clear leadership. He will have to act quickly too, as people are dying every day in prison, being failed on release and recalled to already crowded prisons and the taxpayer is footing the bill. His responsibility is to keep us all safe and that means the public but it also means prison staff and prisoners. Reform of a failing system can do that.
Sentencing reform is desperately needed. I know of a woman who was sentenced to eight months in prison for perverting the course of justice – lying to the police about speeding tickets incurred by her (ex) abusive partner who was banned from driving at the time but who helped himself to her car whenever he liked. It was her first offence, she was not a danger to the public, she had split from her partner and was living at home, she had a management position with a local farm shop and she had four excellent character references. The pre sentencing report recommended a suspended sentence. Yet despite all that she was sent to prison, served two months (at three prisons), was on electronic tag for another six weeks then recalled for two weeks (at yet another prison) because her tag broke – they insisted it had been cut. She now has a part time job, is struggling with alcohol and drug dependency and has to pay for private counselling since none was available in prison. What good did the prison sentence do for anyone? And it must have cost the public purse tens of thousands of pounds.
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Our prison system is in a shambles. Self harm and suicide at epidemic levels. Recall at an extremely high level, most likely to control increasing probation caseloads. With all the good advice being given to the government from the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust you would think they would listen but they don’t. It goes against their philosophy. They now want to build new prisons with extremely poor environments. Small shared cells, no natural light and unpleasant regimes. All this does is produce more suffering. More people in prison per head of the population than any other EU country. A justice system run purely on PERCEIVED risk doesn’t rehabilitate. It just creates more injustice. People need to be treated with dignity and encouraged to move forward with their life. If you keep judging them on what they did or were found guilty of, you will forever be making them look back and not look positively to the future. Still people are on a sentence which was stopped in 2012. Held in prison potentially indefinitely purely on a PERCEIVED risk score. The IPP sentence (inexcusable persistent persecution) How can anyone live with that sentence, it is a sentence which causes suffering not just for the prisoner but for their family too. Torture is prevalent in her majesties’ prisons