'It's time for a public inquiry into prisons crisis', former chief inspector tells politicians
The Government should establish a public inquiry into the perpetual state of crisis of the country’s jails, according to a much-respected former Chief Inspector of Prisons.
Giving evidence before Parliament’s Justice Committee yesterday, Professor Nick Hardwick said he had become “increasingly persuaded” of the view of the Prison Governors Association “for some kind of public examination of these issues, an inquiry”.
He told MPs: “The system has been bedeviled by changes in policy and because of the nature of prisons you need a long-term perspective which people of potentially different political persuasions can sign up to and we don’t have that. If you’re going to reconfigure the [prison] estate, for instance, you need to have some reasonable degree of confidence that you can stick with that for decades.”
He said the response of the prison service to constant policy changes presented a “danger to the system as a whole” and that a long-term consensus on our approach to prisons is necessary.
“You used to get it sometimes, when you went to a prison where there was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed governor and when you spoke to the experienced staff on the ground they would say ‘look, we’ll sit it out because he’ll be gone in 18 months and we can go back to doing things are we were’,” he added.
The professor of criminal justice at Royal Holloway, University of London, said he agreed with ministers’ current focus on ‘getting the basics right’, but that this should not be their only ambition.
While he said there was evidence of some improvements within the prison system, there was a “very long way to go and still some big risks”.
“Getting the basics right is laying the foundations, but they’re not an end in themselves, they are a means to an end,” Prof Hardwick said. “So, it’s correct to say we need to get those in place but then we shouldn’t abandon a longer-term vision of wider reform, greater focus on rehabilitation, looking at trying to make more decent and humane prisons.”
Prof Hardwick said relationships between prisoners and staff are key to effective rehabilitation.
“There isn’t a shortcut to that, you need enough experienced staff who are working consistently to create the relationships on which those other things depend,” he said. “And you need stability around policy so people can plan and be clear about what’s the strategy, what are the objectives, and they can get on and deliver that and it’s not changing every six months.”
The former Chair of the Parole Board said that there is a limit to the number of new staff that can be recruited at any one time, of the “capacity of the system to absorb new staff”, and that he believes the problems and consequences of the Prison Service not being able to retain staff is being brushed aside.
“Staff are leaving before they become fully effective… because of the working conditions, you get punched, why would you turn up to work with these levels of violence? That’s a big issue,” he said. “Secondly, you can earn more money in comparable and less stressful jobs close by so there’s a real reward factor. But I suspect it’s also about the support new staff get, whether the training is right. It’s not just about keeping new staff but also that experienced staff don’t leave before they need to either. The whole issue about retention hasn’t been given enough attention.”
He said the shortages also related to prison staff such as teachers, nurses and psychologists who are all “crucial to the overall stability of the prison” and that it would be a “mistake to focus solely on uniformed, operational staff”.
Prof Hardwick also warned how problems with staffing have enabled organised crime to flourish.
“I am quite sure that in some prisons, the lack of experienced staff has left a vacuum that organised crime has filled,” he told MPs. “If you want to have a profitable trade in drugs, you need some rules and structures by which that trade operates, there’s a lot of money at stake, people need to pay, you can’t go to the small claims court if they’re don’t. What’s certainly happened in some prisons is that an alternative structure has developed. Prisoners are running too much of what’s happening and, once that becomes established, that becomes very difficult to break down, much more difficult than stopping it arising in the first place.”
The Justice Committee heard Prof Hardwick’s evidence as part of its inquiry, ‘Prison population 2022: planning for the future’.
Despite Justice Secretary David Gauke's stated intention to reduce the use of prison for those given short sentences, the academic told MPs it was important to note that the increase in the prison population in recent years has been the result of people being given longer sentences, with only 6% of the prison population serving sentences of less than six months.
Referring to former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s plans to cut his department’s budget by reducing the number of people in prisons – a policy that did not bear fruit, despite the cuts already agreed, as the then Prime Minister David Cameron did not back him on it – Prof Hardwick said he “would be very cautious of the Ministry of Justice saying they can deliver savings through reductions in the population, which in the end prove unachievable”.
Asked about the ‘Urgent Notification’ process, introduced by the Government last year, under which the Chief Inspector of Prisons can alert the Justice Secretary about a failing prison, requiring the latter to publish a plan of action within a month, Prof Hardwick said it was an “important initiative” but that there are “a lot of prisons just below that level that are very concerning”.
He said the current Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, had struck the right “balance” in using the Urgent Notification process to make the Justice Secretary aware of prisons in real crisis, but that it was ultimately down to Prison Service management to identify and do something about those failures.
“It would be a concern, I think, if the prison inspectorate becomes a substitute for the management of the prison service,” he said. “Urgent Notifications are necessary but why are they necessary? Why does it take the inspectorate to go round and identify the problems? Why can the correct measures be put in place only after the inspectorate has been there? If the inspectorate becomes dragged too much into doing management’s job, then it starts to have to defend the position it’s in and work with the Government’s agenda than to provide an objective overview.”
Also giving evidence before MPs yesterday was forensic psychologist Dr Dee Anand who voiced concerns about a lack of qualified and experienced psychologists working with inmates in prisons. He believes that psychologists should be involved in everything from developing architectural designs for jails, to prison and ministerial policy, and supporting and supervising staff.
Dr Anand referred to HMP Grendon, “a community where the prisoners themselves are invested in change… offering therapy to each other on a constant basis with staff facilitating that process”, and added: “in my view, if we could have a hundred Grendons that would be wonderful”.
The psychologist told MPs that prisoners need to be active agents in their own rehabilitation and that “we need to view prisons as places and cultures that facilitate change and that means rehabilitation needs to be a primary focus for our institutions”.
“There is something to be said about looking to change the conversation around this,” he added. “This is an area, a topic of great political sensitivity and not a lot of public buy-in. We need to change the conversation and move it away from prisons being places full of terrible people who have done terrible things, of course they have committed crimes, but prisons are in fact full of very, very vulnerable people who need support to help them change.
“And we need to change the conversation in strategic and political circles, we need to change the public mindset which comes from that top-level strategic thinking down. We need to engage the public more… and the focus can then be made much easier in turning prisons into places of rehabilitation and safety and change, rather than purely punitive institutions that the public can forget about.”
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