Government unveils major prison reforms

mike traceSweeping reforms of the prison system were announced as part of last month’s Queen’s Speech, including the establishment of six autonomous ‘reform prisons’. Governors at these will have ‘unprecedented’ freedom in terms of budgets, education and work and rehabilitation services, amounting to the ‘biggest shake-up’ of the system since the Victorian era, the government says.

More than 5,000 offenders will be housed in the new-style institutions, including those at HMP Wandsworth, one of the largest prisons in Europe. Each establishment will be able to set up its own board, enter into contracts and generate and retain income, with statistics for each published on areas such as self-harm, violence and employment and re-offending rates. Many British prisons have seen an increase in violence and self-harm associated with the use of new psychoactive substances – particularly synthetic cannabinoids – (DDN, February 2015, page 6), with HM Inspectorate of Prisons calling the substances the ‘most serious threat’ to safety and security in the system (DDN, February, page 4).

The measures announced in the Prisons Bill meant that jails would stop being ‘warehouses for criminals’ and become ‘places where lives are changed’, according to Prime Minister David Cameron. ‘Decrepit, aging’ prisons would also be replaced with modern establishments, and there would be action to ‘ensure better mental health provision’ for those in the criminal justice system.

‘Prisons must do more to rehabilitate offenders,’ said justice secretary Michael Gove. ‘We will put governors in charge, giving them the autonomy they need to run prisons in the way they think best. By trusting governors to get on with the job we can make sure prisons are places of education, work and purposeful activity.’

The reforms have been welcomed by RAPt (Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust), with CEO Mike Trace saying they represented a ‘welcome determination to put genuine transformation of prisoners at the heart of prison life’. Giving governors more control was a ‘great step forward’, he said, but he cautioned that tackling the issues of drugs, mental health, violence and education would be critical.

‘Prisoners need help to address fundamental attitudes and behaviour and inspiration from peers who have already turned their lives around,’ he said. ‘We know this leads to hard working and productive people who make positive contributions to their families and communities. Prisoners need the life skills, as well as the qualifications, to get and keep a job, which we know is vital to their long term rehabilitation.’ See news focus, page 7