What future for our prisons?

whatfutureWith NPS problems making regular headlines and a general consensus that the system isn’t working, the UK’s prisons are in bad shape. David Gilliver reports on a major project that could help create something new

Earlier this year the government announced ‘the biggest shake up of prisons since the Victorian times’, with plans for six major new ‘reform prisons’ and unprecedented freedoms for their governors with regard to budgets, education, rehabilitation services and more (DDN, June, pages 5 and 7).

That seems a long time ago now. David Cameron was still prime minister, the UK hadn’t voted to leave the EU, and Michael Gove, chief architect of the reforms, was justice secretary rather than a back bencher. Around the same time, however, RSA launched its own major project to look at how prisons could become fit for purpose for the 21st century and ensure ‘lasting social reintegration’ for ex-offenders.

‘At present, when nearly half of those in prison go on to reoffend within a year, we cannot say our criminal justice system is working,’ wrote Gove in his introduction to the project’s scoping paper, The future prison. ‘When prisoners are prepared to risk their lives taking new psychoactive substances as an antidote to boredom, we cannot say our programme of purposeful activities is working.’

By the end of the year the aim is that the project will have come up with a blueprint for a future prison that places the ‘challenge of rehabilitation’ at the centre, and will also have identified what the government needs to do to ensure the right legislative framework for funding, policy and governance is in place to achieve it.

‘We know what’s wrong – what there hasn’t been is “how do you put it right”,’ says chair of the project’s advisory group, and former prison governor, John Podmore. ‘A lot of the debate is still around “you can’t do anything until you reduce the prison population and get more resources”, and we shouldn’t stop fighting for that, but you have to deal with the problems we have now and start developing a strategy for longer-term improvement. This is about the long-term strategic issues that hadn’t really been considered in a holistic way.’

It also aims to address the dislocation between theory and frontline experience and, ultimately, between ‘prisons and the wider community’. To this end, it points out that in most countries prisons are run by the state, or, increasingly, by private companies, while no one has so far explored a ‘third way’ – not for profit prisons run by the communities they are ‘there to serve’. How much of an appetite for that model is there likely to be, though?

‘The key thing is that without a focus on purpose you end up having technical discussions about the public sector, the private sector, or the not for profit sector,’ says project lead Rachel O’Brien, ‘rather than saying “if you’re judged, incentivised, measured on this, it matters less who the provider is”. Things are so difficult at the moment that what you’re getting is this strange mix of top-down control with very little accountability, so it’s kind of the worst of both worlds.’

The project focuses on core areas like leadership, education, employment, health, risk, rehabilitation, devolution and autonomy. The latter is central, explains O’Brien. ‘So rehabilitation first, but how does greater autonomy support that outcome? A key thing would be much more emphasis on being outward looking, as well as partnership, and that has great implications not just for the governor role but the relationship between the prison and criminal justice boards.’

One area where the system has been falling down is that prison officers, doctors, nurses and teaching staff are simply not having prolonged contact with prisoners, or getting to know them in any meaningful way. ‘Everybody reading DDN knows that the essence of successful drug and alcohol treatment is the case worker,’ says Podmore. ‘You can have all the treatment protocols in the world, all the contractual requirements, but at the end of the day success for the client is someone who gets to know them, works with them, gains their trust, addresses their issues and is central to their rehabilitation.’

On that subject, the scoping paper makes the point that while reoffending rates provide ‘seductive hard data’, the concept of rehabilitation is harder to grasp. Is that a barrier that can be easily overcome when it comes to meaningful reform? ‘I think it’s getting there,’ says O’Brien. ‘A lot of our work actually draws on the recovery area, so when somebody says to me, “It is nebulous,­­­ we can’t measure it”, I say, “Well, no more so than concepts like recovery capital, and more so than wellbeing”. A lot of the indicators you would use would be very similar. I think the biggest risk is that we chase the holy grail of reoffending.’

It’s partly about talking about community safety, risk and rehabilitation ‘in the same breath’, she explains. ‘Sometimes it felt like these things are put in different corners, as if they’re a choice, when the evidence is that they’re very closely aligned. We’ve had a very risk-averse, security-driven approach rather than a rehabilitative approach.’

‘It’s the whole issue of what you measure and how you measure it,’ adds Podmore. ‘It’s a very difficult thing, and the drug and alcohol field has had this for years with abstinence and recovery. The National Offender Management Service’s (NOMS) primary measure of drug use in prisons is mandatory drug testing, and in the last annual report it went down. Therefore there isn’t a drug problem in prison, because the main measure is showing a reduction. We know that’s palpable nonsense, so why are we still doing it?’

The one thing that’s not measured is leadership and management, he argues, and when it comes to the issue of devolution of justice, there’s a compelling case for splitting the prison service up. ‘There’s 85,000 people in prison, and maybe 25 or 30,000 really need prison in the traditional sense. How many of the 85,000 are we afraid of, and how many are we mad at? Locking people up is very easy to do – getting people out so they don’t come back is the tricky bit, and that’s where we’re failing miserably. So I’d have a kind of federal estate for the long-termers and terrorism and so on – a traditional, centralised system – and then a devolved, local, community prison estate which is looking at people who are going in and out. That will be governors with autonomy reporting to local boards, with devolved, integrated justice.’

So how much of an impact is the new government likely to have on the reforms set out in the Queen’s Speech, or is it too early to say? ‘All I can go on is what [justice secretary] Liz Truss has said to the press, which is that she’s going to push ahead and push ahead quickly,’ he says. ‘The message seems to be that, OK, there’s been a change of people but the policies are in place. That’s not to say there aren’t all sorts of imponderables around budgets and finance, and things you can’t predict. But when you look at the levels of violence and assault and illicit drug use, then something’s got to be done, and done quickly.’

On the subject of drugs, when it comes to the much-discussed impact of NPS, the paper argues it’s inextricable from the question of prisoners’ needs. ‘It goes back to culture, really,’ says O’Brien. ‘There’s no part of the project that doesn’t see on a daily basis the acute impact it’s having on everybody, but however much we get the testing right, or drones or security, we’re not going to change the demand side. All the evidence is that a key part of it is when people are doing nothing.’

It also means that much more effort needs to be put into awareness-raising and education, both on the outside and as people come into prison, rather than ‘waiting until it’s too late’, she argues. ‘It’s not just in-custody education, it’s a broader community approach. It’s about demand, and the inability to adapt to new challenges, which again goes back partly to autonomy. You need the system to support you and share the best evidence of what does work, but governors need to have the flexibility to respond to issues that change very rapidly.’

A key failing is that drug and alcohol service providers simply aren’t being involved in the debate, states Podmore. ‘The response is bring in drug dogs, or chop down trees around the perimeter to stop stuff being thrown in. The people in NOMS who’ve been responsible for the strategic approach to drug problems in prison have never recruited, or sought to recruit, the sort of high quality people I’ve come into contact with in the drug and alcohol field. Whoever’s dealing with the NPS issue is going to be looking at it from a security perspective rather than a treatment perspective. Yes, you’ve got to stop NPS coming in, but you’ve also got to stop prisoners wanting them, and it’s hugely complicated – it’s about education, treatment, the wider regime. My plea to the drug and alcohol network out there is be knocking on the door and demanding more involvement in these issues. The people who know best how to deal with these problems are not being included.

‘I know a lot of the organisations reading DDN are being beaten over the head about winning, retaining and competing for contracts. I know the pain of all that. But I’d like the sector to be saying, “we’ve got much more to offer than you’ve realised and you should be reaching out to us much more”. The drug and alcohol sector understands the problems of people leading chaotic lives, and families, and illicit drug use. It’s not about the setting, it’s people with complex needs, and the sector’s been handling that pretty damn well for years.’