Earlier this month, the Prime Minister announced proposals for a dramatic “overhaul” of Britain’s penal system, starting with six “reform prisons”, in what he deemed the “biggest shake-up of prisons since the Victorian era”. Many of us will no doubt be greatly skeptical of any speech which claims “Michael Gove is just the man for the job”. However, for the time being, I’m willing to put this to one side, and to focus on the key issues targeted by the proposed reforms, including increased autonomy for individual prison governors; reducing re-offending rates by improving literacy and employability; and the introduction of prison league tables.
Firstly, Cameron stated that a key issue with the current system can be found in the rules imposed upon prison governors and officials with regards to the day-to-day running of a prison, which he believes are are too strict. Making changes that benefit prisoners in education, rehabilitation and general safety is a stressful and difficult process, one which he claims is “infantilising the staff”. The proposed answer is to give prison governors greater power and reduced limitations: “They’ll be given a budget and total discretion over how to spend it”.
It is an appealing idea: giving the reigns to those who work within and fully understand the prison system, allowing them the freedom to make the improvements they deem necessary. Nonetheless, it is important to maintain a level of transparency with regards to how the money is allocated, and to ensure that the reforms provide the means for improvement and change. It would be easy enough for the government to place responsibility and accountability on the shoulders of the prison officials, without providing them with a budget to make any significant improvement.
Secondly, Cameron spoke of the importance of reducing prison overcrowding by looking not only at reducing crime, but equally by improving basic education inside; by reducing restrictions on announcing unspent convictions in the early stages of job applications; and, more controversially, by the deportation of foreign inmates. By making prison education a more attractive option to teachers through fast-track programmes and financial incentives, Cameron aims to provide prisons with effective basic education in areas that will allow offenders to become more employable. Furthermore, not having to initially declare unspent convictions in application processes may allow people a chance to prove their worth, without being automatically rejected at the first hurdle.
The most noticeable aspect of Cameron’s speech was that it looked at the individual human behind the offender: the reasons they ended up there, and the lack of opportunities available post-imprisonment. More importantly, there was significant focus on the fact that “49% have an identifiable mental health condition” and that it is important to overcome the false stereotype of prisons being too soft, or “holiday camps”, acknowledging that they are places of significant isolation, abuse, self-harm and frequent suicide. It feels like a first step in the right direction, admitting it’s in everyone’s favour to provide a supportive prison environment and greater focus on rehabilitation.