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‘A game of political hot potato’: David Cameron’s prison reform

By Katie Heslop

David Cameron has announced an overhaul of the British prison system, starting with six “reform prisons” to be built as part of an ongoing project to curb the rising violence and high reoffending rates.

The speech, given at the Policy Exchange think tank, was aimed to reinvigorate the debate as to how best run prisons for inmates to become contributing, productive members of society. Cameron’s announcement comes in the wake of Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of prisons in England and Wales stating that prison conditios have deteriorated in the last five years. The PM shed light on these conditions stating: “46% of all prisoners will re-offend within a year of release. 60% of short-sentenced prisoners will reoffend within the same period.”

Michael Gove, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. Photo by: Department for Education

The neglect of prisons, which has so far been a staple of Mr. Cameron’s government, not only affects inmates but prison employees also, the PM explaining that, “in a typical week, there will be almost 600 incidents of self-harm; at least one suicide; and 350 assaults, including 90 on staff.” These statistics show that prisons have become cesspools of violence and frustration, existing in a system that helps no one and has so far been low on the priority list.

The decisions made by previous Justice Secretary Chris Grayling led to further overcrowding and disregard of education in prisons. His term has been widely derided as disastrous; his worse decisions include shutting down 18 prisons, cutting down the number of prison workers by almost 40% and disallowing family members to send inmates books. Consequently, since his appointment, Michael Gove has been reversing Grayling’s work and is now focused on turning prisons into rehabilitation centres where offenders can learn new skills and will be given more responsibility.

At the “reformed prisons” the prison governors will have autonomy over how they run the institutions. They will be able to place limits on the number of possessions inmates can hold in their cells and decide on the amount of time they spend outside their cells. However, Cameron failed to expand on how this would reduce overcrowding and reoffending rates, demonstrating a lack of thought behind the proposal and a possible knee-jerk reaction to Grayling’s term.

By shirking responsibility, the PM and Justice Secretary are taking part in a game of political hot potato, where they will be free to point fingers if the reform prisons are a failure. Further, this decision does not mean an inevitable refocus on rehabilitation, as the stance the prison takes depends entirely on the warden’s views. Some prisons may flourish under these new guidelines but others will remain stagnant, the inmates a testament to the “Victorian style” prisons Mr. Cameron is suddenly so keen to get rid of.

Entrance to the former Canterbury Prison, one of the facilities closed by the Ministry of Justice under Chris Grayling in 2013. The site is now owned by Canterbury Christ Church University. Photo by: N Chadwick

Entrance to the former Canterbury Prison, one of the facilities closed by the Ministry of Justice under Chris Grayling in 2013. The site is now owned by Canterbury Christ Church University. Photo by: N Chadwick

However, other proposals in the planned shake-up are more promising. As part of Mr. Gove’s plan to make education more accessible and a staple of prison life, former Education Minister David Laws is in talks with TeachFirst to encourage graduates to take up teaching positions in prisons. In the hope of reducing the prison population, the PM has also confirmed that satellites will be used to track offenders, meaning some prisoners on lower charges will only return to prison during weekends. Community punishments will also be increased, meaning criminals will productively serve their sentence and their community, rather than languishing in a cell. These reforms take inspiration from the less strict, yet more effective prisons elsewhere in Europe, where inmates are allowed overnight visits from their family and they can leave the grounds for exercise.

These reforms, if carried out effectively, will in theory fulfil Cameron’s dream of a “truly 21st Century” prison system, where inmates will no longer be treated as “liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed”. However, at the moment the reforms are all just talk, and we will have to wait a few more years to judge whether they have made a tangible difference and if the Conservative government have delivered what they promised.

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