Test 3 March, 2017

Prisons are a magnifying glass for many of society’s ills

The problems of drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues and a casual attitude to violence loom large in our jails, but scar the lives of many offenders long before the prison van pulls up at the main gate.

People are in prison for a reason. But if we want to turn offenders’ lives around we must find a way to deliver both punishment and rehabilitation.

By comparison with schools and hospitals, prisons remain among the most centralised of our public services (which probably explains why they’ve been the subject of not one but two recent studies published by Reform).

Prison regimes are still micro-managed in accordance with rafts of rules drawn up in an over-arching and top heavy headquarters.

And that is why the Prisons and Courts Bill sets the right framework to deliver prisons from the dead hand of bureaucracy.

We will vest authority in the frontline; giving staff a freer rein. And in return, establishing clarity and transparency in performance, and sharper accountability to ensure that performance targets are met and even exceeded.

Public protection remains the key priority. The areas of security and intelligence will still be driven centrally as these apply across the prison estate. At the same time, we want to find new ways to manage individual risks and needs – which is why day-to-day control of what changes offenders’ lives is being passed to prison governors.

They will be able to use their many qualities – experience, knowledge, compassion, imagination and determination – as a catalyst to change some of society’s most unmanageable members.

It means that from April, governors will be free to rebuild their regimes in a way that works best for their particular body of offenders. If local employers are crying out for men skilled in dry wall lining, say, that’s training a governor can seek to provide.

Governors will agree health providers with local health commissioners and can redesign any programmes they run aimed at improving offender behaviour. They will need control over their budget to do this: this, too, we are giving them.

But what about the other side of the bargain for the taxpayer: the checks and balances on prison performance?

These take the form of a sharper accountability framework, underpinned by a beefed-up role for the Prisons Inspector and performance data that will be publicly available from October this year.

We’re compiling this data from new metrics, along similar lines to those developed by Reform and others. These will check prisons against four standards: public protection, safety and order, reform and preparing for life after prison.

Security remains a great concern. To boost safety, we are recruiting 2,500 extra prison officers to quell the violence in jails, and bring momentum to offender reform.

It’s important that we never lose sight of our primary focus. Protecting victims and stopping more harm being inflicted on people and the communities they live in.

Over the last five to ten years, the tone of the debate about prisons has changed. It’s no longer remarkable to talk about their being places of reform, but until now we have lacked the systems, structure and architecture to deliver it.

The Bill and the earlier White Paper are moving us to a position where we can turn the political will into reality.