Quakers in Criminal Justice

Winter 2016 Newsletter Download PDF

Still Waiting For Prison Reform

As I write this article, prison governors are holding their annual conference. This has unusually made the news because the governors, aware of the acute diffculties, are calling for an independent public inquiry into the state of prisons (in England and Wales).

The hallmarks of this deterioration are an “unprecedented“ rise in violence, suicides and self-harm. Staff shortages, exacerbated by staff sickness, contribute to what the governors term “a squalid and brutal environment”. As though to testify to the “brutal”, a prisoner is murdered in HMP Pentonville, while rats in a number of prisons attest to the “squalid”. The governor's comments echo annual reports from the Chief Inspector of prisons in which, year on year, a marked downward trend is recorded.

The current situation is a far cry from the optimism many of us felt when Michael Gove became Secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice in April 2015. He accepted what was to be Nick Hardwick's final report as Chief Inspector of Prisons in all its damning detail. His first remarks, later echoed by David Cameron, pointed out that none of us would wish to be defined by the worst thing that we had done, that prisoners could be an asset and that promoting a culture of education “inside” was the way to achieve successful rehabilitation “outside”. To this end, he asked Dame Sally Coates to review prison education. However, as I fed in to the consultation and attended a “stake-holders day” it soon became clear to me that her report would go way beyond education, and envisaged deeper reform. So far so good – so what went wrong?

In a word – the referendum. Gove's championing of the “Leave” group appeared to be more important than the “day job” in the Ministry of Justice. We knew the Coates Review was completed – a member of the Prisoner Learning Alliance, on which I sit, was on the writing panel. But rather than the expected March launch, delays set in and we feared the review might not appear at all. In fact this has been the fate of the parallel Taylor Review of the Youth Justice System (under 18 year-olds) also initiated in 2015 and scheduled for publication at the end of June. A comment at the time summed up the experience of many: “Brexit has thrown everything into disarray!”.

However the Coates Review, Unlocking Potential, did finally appear and was accepted in the Queens Speech. Then, in a series of unprecedented machinations, it appeared that Gove might become leader of the Tory party, or be promoted under Boris Johnson. Instead he was booted out from the cabinet by a new PM. So what is the fate of Unlocking Potential? How will Liz Truss, the new Secretary of State, view the proposed reforms, which were meant to be rolled out within reform legislation in October?

I met with Sally Coates in early September to resolve some of my queries regarding the implementation of her review – particularly within my professional area: prisoners with dyslexia and related conditions. It was the first time these learning needs had been highlighted in an official prison review. I also queried the funding for her recommendations and what would happen in the six “Reform Prisons” (where the governors now have greater flexibility regarding facilities and training) when prisoners transfer between establishments. It appears that acceptance in the Queens Speech by one set of ministers does not ensure implementation by a different batch. The overriding question is now whether there is sufficient political will to put Coates' reforms into practice?

Liz Truss's first move has been to speak on Islamic radicalisation in prisons, proposing that those promoting it should be segregated from other prisoners. Actually, if I was feeling bored and also unsafe in prison, the occupation of religious rituals and the protection of a large brotherhood would not be an unattractive prospect.

Two questions for the Secretary of State would be:

As of October 2016, very little has been heard from Sam Gyimah, our new Minister for Prisons, Probation, Rehabilitation and Sentencing. Being black, he may address the Lammy Report on the needs of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) prisoners as his priority.

One group that can hopefully bring their influence to bear is the Justice Select Committee (JSC). Over the summer they launched their Inquiry on prison reform. The first question in the consultation (What should be the purpose/s of prison?) is very similar to the discussion framework produced by our Quaker Crime Communities & Justice Sub-Committee: WHY PRISON? The JSC Inquiry also examines the roles and responsibilities of prison staff, governors, the National Offender Management Service and the Ministry of Justice. Further questions relate to the implementation of reforms, out-sourcing, performance measures and independent monitoring.

I agree with Martin Wright, writing in the August edition of our newsletter, about the urgent need to reduce the prison population. Statistics highlight two groups who are most likely to end up in custody: people who have been in care and pupils excluded from school (among whom are high numbers with dyslexia and related conditions). So why not divert funds from coping with the astronomical costs of reoffending to tackling early intervention?

To conclude, how can we as Quakers take up this challenge? I suggest that we acquaint ourselves with the facts and figures in the Bromley Briefings, compiled by the Prison Reform Trust. Then re-read the Quaker Vision for a Criminal Justice System (circulated to all Area Meetings and discussed by many of us, with Minutes forwarded to Meeting for Sufferings). In this way we can discern our distinct Quaker voice and add to the increasingly urgent calls for prison reform.

Melanie Jameson

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