Test 3 April, 2017

Prisons and probation: making a reality of rehabilitation (IV)

There is no doubt that the most pressing problem to tackle in prisons in England and Wales is the increase in violence. The safety of prisoners and staff must be our priority because it is only when the prison community feels safe that we can make headway in the work of rehabilitation.

The UK’s prison system has never been particularly reliant on coercive control to manage prisons. Instead, the key to effective prison management is an environment of mutual respect between prisoners and staff. Our experience at HMP Birmingham and other local prisons at the end of last year underlined the fragility of that relationship and how at times, it can shift dramatically and with devastating consequences. Just as on the outside, values that support relationships such as respect for authority, for institutions and for each other are under threat. Inside prisons, the rise in new synthetic drugs and concerns about staff numbers can also be added to that challenging mix.

The Government’s white paper puts the governor at the heart of efforts to meet these challenges and it is right that more powers should rest with local prison leaders. We also support measures to strengthen the role of the prison officer, which has become devalued in recent years as other more detached professionals exert a greater influence on the terms and conditions of a prisoner’s sentence.

Technology can also play a role in improving safety. We swiftly rolled out body-worn video cameras in 2013 after seeing how they can de-escalate situations at HMP Birmingham and HMP Oakwood where we put them in as part of our tender to operate both establishments. A trial of new machine learning technology attached to CCTV at HMP Altcourse near Liverpool to understand the picture of a ‘normal’ operating environment is also showing promise as a way to improve perimeter security.

While the safety of prisoners and staff is the immediate priority, we agree that the long-term goal must be to put rehabilitation at the heart of prison life. What we have learned through our family unit at HMP Parc in South Wales, which motivates offenders by taking a whole family approach, is that successful rehabilitation relies on a range of factors both inside and outside of the prison. It’s no coincidence that the programme is called ‘Invisible Walls’ (IW). It allows a prisoner’s family to ‘look through’ the prison walls so that they see the prisoner taking positive steps. The IW team also allows the prisoner to have a ‘lens’ on the impact of their behaviour on their children and family. Working with social services, schools, and charities enables IW to gain traction and ‘stickiness’ as it works, cross sector, simultaneously inside and outside of the prison. It energises a prisoner’s bonds with his family and community. Inspectors have called the approach radical and initial indications point to a substantial reduction in re-offending rates in high-risk families.

As the Government’s white paper makes clear, reform of our prisons is an urgent necessity. Success depends on all of us within the criminal justice system being open about what we deliver and committing to an unrelenting focus on following and responding to the evidence. This will lead to safer prisons, improved safety and ultimately cut the number of future victims of crime.