Crisis and reform – prisons under the spotlight

prisons under the spotlight

On 3 November, against a backdrop of increasingly dramatic headlines about a prison system in crisis, the Ministry of Justice published its White Paper, Prison Safety and Reform, which sets out the Conservative government’s plans for reshaping the prison system. The White Paper, the precursor to the Prison Reform Bill promised by former Justice Minister Michael Gove and now being managed by his successor Liz Truss, had been in the pipeline since the Queen’s Speech on 18 May but was delayed by Brexit and the resulting Cabinet reshuffle. Its publication therefore took place at a moment just weeks after a particularly violent incident in Pentonville prison in which three prisoners were stabbed, one fatally, and days before a ‘riot’ at Bedford prison. Nicki Jameson reports.

A further week later Pentonville was on the front pages again as two prisoners made a daring escape over the wall. Then, on 16 November, members of the Prison Officers Association (POA), who are legally banned from striking, staged an unofficial walk-out in protest against staff shortages and fear of violence against its members. Although prison officer numbers have genuinely been cut in the recent period, the POA is simply repeating the same refrain it has uttered since its inception. Its suggested solution to the ‘crisis’ is not that prisoners should have access to more education, rehabilitation etc to divert them from violence against one another or themselves, but that they should be locked up for even longer each day and allowed even fewer opportunities to leave their cells and associate with one another.

On top of all this, there is an increasing amount of pressure on the government to take action in relation to the 3,859 prisoners who are continuing to serve Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection despite the discredited sentence itself having been abolished in 2012. Many of these prisoners are still inside years after their tariff (minimum custodial period) has expired, usually stuck on a waiting list to complete some ‘offending behaviour programme’ without which the Parole Board refuses to release them.

‘Prison reform’

As we pointed out in FRFI 252, Gove’s planned ‘reforms’ are simply the introduction into the prison system of similar mechanisms to those he brought into schools when he was Education Minister, and the White Paper is open about its plans to ‘reform the whole framework through which the prison system is run’ being inspired by ‘the success of other public sector reforms in education and health’.

The proposals mainly consist therefore, on the one hand, of more devolved power for the governors of individual prisons, who will be freed from the current ‘562 policies prisons must comply with’ and able to make their own decisions about regimes and budgets, and, on the other, of even more control from central government

More centralised control

A strengthened prisons inspectorate will assume an Ofsted-style role and prisons will be ranked in league tables according to their performance against pre-set targets for escapes, assaults, time prisoners spend out of their cells and progress in education, health and work. This will be accompanied by a ‘rectification process’ for ‘failing’ prisons, consisting of various types of centralised intervention, including replacing the ‘autonomous’ governors and their team with different ‘leadership’, which it is strongly hinted will come from the private sector.

More ‘autonomy’ (and more prisons)

Governors of six prisons have already been formally granted greater autonomy over the running of their institutions. This will be expanded to more existing prisons and incorporated in planned new gaols to be built on the sites of currently closed prisons at Wellingborough in Northamptonshire and Glen Parva in Leicestershire, as well as at the new HMP Berwyn in Wales which is due to open in February 2017. The White Paper also announces plans to build five new ‘community prisons’ for women.

Profiting from cheap prison labour

The liberal spin on this ‘autonomy’ for governors is that they are free to provide more release on temporary licence and more rehabilitative programmes which are tailored to the needs of their particular prison population; however the same ‘autonomy’ means that they are equally free to spend less money on food or education, arbitrarily increase punitive security measures and bring in yet more private contractors to exploit prisoners’ labour. The White Paper is permeated with references to prison governors building up relationships with local businesses so that both can profit from prisoners’ cheap labour. Nothing is to stand in the way of this, and governors ‘will be able to design the prison day to meet commercial opportunities, rather than trying to shoehorn the work into a centrally prescribed timetable, and to recruit the right staff to train prisoners and oversee the work…They will be able to incentivise prisoners as they advance through workshops as they learn new skills and can take on increased levels of responsibility – and reward prisoners appropriately in line with their policies.’

Free from the need to pay prisoners even the minimum wage, governors and their ‘commercial partners’ will be free to exploit their labour as they see fit. Post-EU referendum this clearly appeals both to the government and to businesses as opportunities to exploit cheap East European labour look set to recede. The White Paper explicitly describes the prison workforce as ‘a pool of untapped talent that employers can utilise to meet skills gaps’.

Repackaging old plans

The White Paper repeats a lot of things which appear in every such document: the wish for prisons to be rehabilitative and not just warehouses; the desire to balance security and control against reform and rehabilitation, the need for better and more streamlined management of the unwieldy system etc. It also repackages and proclaims as new the ‘personal officer’ scheme whereby each prisoner has a dedicated officer responsible for their progress within the system, the use of ‘key performance indicators’ to measure prisons’ performances, the teaching of basic Maths and English to prisoners who lack these skills and the recruitment of ex-army personnel and ‘fast-tracked’ recent graduates as prison officers. There are also plans for more surveillance within prison and for special units for radical extremists, to which ‘the most subversive individuals will be removed from the mainstream prison population…to protect others from their poisonous ideologies.’

Homes and jobs

The White Paper commits the government to spending £1.3bn on new prisons and recruiting 2,500 additional prison officers by 2018. It is not clear whether this includes the 400 extra staff being immediately recruited to work in offender management roles in ten specified prisons at a cost of £14m. However, for all the talk of reform and rehabilitation there is no actual state money allocated to providing real, properly paid jobs for prisoners, before or after release. Nor, for all the rhetoric about making sure that released prisoners have homes to go to, described as ‘a key factor in reducing the likelihood of them returning to crime’, is there any commitment (beyond a vague suggestion that some disused parts of the prison system may become halfway houses) to building homes for them to be released to. Indeed, why would there be such provision under a government which is forcing benefit claimants into zero-hours contracts and socially cleansing working class people from Britain’s major cities?

Crisis and reform

There is no doubt that British prisons are overcrowded, violent and dangerous, with spiralling levels of assault, self-harm and drug use. However, such ‘crises’ occur periodically and are routinely exploited by whichever government is in power to provide public support for its latest plans, be they for greater restrictions on prisoners’ movements and rights, or for the apparent relaxation of such restrictions. Never do such ‘crises’ result in a wholesale examination of the prison and criminal justice system, even to the extremely limited extent that such an examination could honestly be conducted within a capitalist society in which the criminal justice system exists primarily as a weapon with which to discipline and subjugate the working class.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 254 December 2016/January 2017


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