What next for prison reform?

pbThe recent Prisons Bill promised the biggest shake-up of prisons since the Victorian era (DDN, June, page 5). At a VolteFace event in London, journalist Philippa Budgen asked panelists: ‘How can we have meaningful prison reform with drug policies that aren’t working? What would be your messages for justice secretary Michael Gove?’


‘Supply drugs to prisoners’

Prison reflects a crisis in society and over the last five years the situation has got worse. We don’t control the supply of illicit drugs – they’re in the hands of criminals. The only regulation is violence and coercion; there’s no legitimacy to it. So if we want to address this we need to take the supply away from criminals.

Why don’t we, as a pilot, supply drugs to prisoners who need them and see what happens? We have to make a start somewhere.

Eoin McLennan-Murray, retired governor of Coldingley Prison


‘Take drugs out of crime’

Organised crime groups in prison are the same groups outside, so debts can be enforced outside. People build up debts that can be collected in horrific ways, such as from their families. This sort of subversion shouldn’t be allowed to happen, and the only way is to take drugs out of organised crime.

Less than 0.2 per cent of the population are committing 50 per cent of acquisitive crime. The reoffending rate for heroin users is 90 per cent. If the supply was taken away from organised crime, through prescribed heroin, you could cut crime overnight.

Neil Woods, former undercover drugs detective sergeant 


‘No large prisons’

Let’s not follow the US system – large prisons are the foundation for organised crime and gangs. Small prisons done well can deter crime. Rehabilitation should not be about cramming people together in an impoverished environment.

David Skarbek, senior lecturer, King’s College London


‘Reform sentencing’

The best way is to create healthy prison regimes. Drug reform and prison reform are only possible with sentencing reform – more people are going to prison for more things and for longer.

Andrew Nelson, director of campaigns at The Howard League for Penal Reform


‘Don’t imprison for possession’

Let’s send fewer people to prison. People who’d never taken drugs start in prison – it has a toxic effect. Last year 7,000 people were sent to immediate custody for drug offences. Most were not big businessmen who make money out of drugs – these people are the minnows at the bottom of the chain.

We’re in a mad situation – imprisoning anyone for possession can only make them worse.

Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice


‘Tackle escalating problem’

New psychoactive Substances (NPS) have changed everything – I saw the first consignments arrive. Now there are lots more prisoners using and running up more debts.

There won’t be any change until it’s treated as a medical and social challenge. Relying on prosecutions isn’t going to work – the problem is escalating. We need to decriminalise personal possession and treat people as needing a psychological, medical and personal approach.

Alex Cavendish, former prisoner and reform campaigner

VolteFace is a policy innovation hub that explores alternatives to current public policies relating to drugs, www.volteface.me