Thank you Andrew [Haldenby, Reform] for that introduction – and thank you all for being here today. It’s always slightly frightening to be reminded of how long you have known someone. It goes back to the days when we both had more hair, and perhaps slightly less grey around the gills, but Reform under your leadership goes from strength to strength in terms of generating policy ideas. I’ve always said that one of the biggest challenges for a party in Government is how to try to refresh it’s electoral energy and its exposure to ideas that require a bit of lateral thinking and I think it’s critically important for Theresa May and for the Government now that we have Think Tanks like Reform to help ministers and their teams to do that thinking and to engage in that way. I want to start, before I go on to the nitty gritty about prisons, just to start with a point of principle about the purpose of prison.
Approach to first six months
Because for me, the purpose of prisons is twofold: it’s first of all to keep safely and securely those people – mostly men but also smaller numbers of women and teenagers – who have been sent there by the courts, but at the same time, it’s purpose is to seek to rehabilitate prisoners, to use the time that they spend in custody to make it more likely that, after they’ve been released, they will live law-abiding lives, they will be able to accept their responsibilities as citizens and contribute positively to the community in which they live.
I want to get one thing very straight: as far as I’m concerned, it is being sent to prison that constitutes the punishment. Because that means the loss of liberty, the loss of the right to come and go as we please, to lead our lives in the way that we choose – something that probably after life itself is the most previous freedom that any one of us possesses.
And it should be a key principle that it is the deprivation of liberty that constitutes the punishment. And prison conditions themselves should be decent and humane, and organised in such a way as to encourage and contribute towards successful rehabilitation. That is why I am committed to continuing Liz Truss’s prison modernisation programme, which as Andrew said was announced here a year ago, creating thousands more modern prison places that are fit for the future – and which incidentally are much cheaper to operate, place for place, than places in our ancient Victorian prisons.
Prison should be a last resort. That is what the law says after all. As a sad truth, there will always have to be people who have to be imprisoned, either because they would be a serious danger to public safety if freed or because the crime that they have committed is so serious that only a prison sentence will do to give the victim a sense that justice has been done and to mark society’s rejection of the crimes.
But I believe too that people don’t want to see our prison population forever rising. I certainly want to see numbers come down from their current record levels. And we need to look constantly at how to ensure that we have a range of tough community sentences, as alternative options, options in which both judges and the general public feel that they can have confidence.
We also need to remember in planning policy that all but a tiny handful of prisoners will one day be released. I think that the public is entitled to expect the state to do its utmost to ensure that an offender who leaves prison is less likely to return.
After all each and every time someone comes out of prison and reoffends, there is a victim at the receiving end of that offence. Only by tackling reoffending and the reasons behind it that will we make society safer in the long run and protect people from becoming future victims of crime.
Making a prisoner less likely to reoffend when he is released starts with having safer and more secure prisons. That has been my focus since the summer. Of course, knowing where and what the problems are, and having a plan to fix them, doesn’t make the task itself an easy or straightforward one. Change isn’t going to happen overnight. Results will take time.
But we are making some progress. Now I know that some, including some here, were disappointed that due to Parliamentary time, we were not able to carry forward the Prisons and Courts Bill in the form that it had reached Parliament ahead of this year’s General Election. I understand those concerns, but I am clear that we can – and we are – continuing to reform our prisons. And I’m keen in particular to take forward by administrative means as many as possible of those areas highlighted in the bill of which I’m able to take forward action.
If we look, for example, at my announcement this month on introducing an urgent notification process: that was something that the Chief Inspector challenged me directly to do by administrative means when the Bill could not be proceeded with. And that is a commitment that I was determined to deliver on and which I have now introduced.
It means that the Chief Inspector of Prisons can now go directly to me when there is an urgent and significant concern about a prison and, as Secretary of State, I will be required to respond within 28 days, and in public, with an action plan to turn the prison around.
And where reform does need legislation, we are active in seeking legislative vehicles, for example through Private Members Bills, such as Maria Caulfield’s that is the House at the moment. The key point is that we strive to deliver reform and change right now, and I reiterate today my determination to do just that.
The safety and security situation
Every day, my office receives a report detailing all the incidents from the prison service over the previous 24 hours. The most troubling updates often involve violent attacks on staff.
One recent report described how three prison officers had suffered injuries while breaking up a fight. One had a broken nose, another bruising to the head. They were all taken to hospital. Despite their injuries and their ordeal, having been checked out of hospital, all three of those prison officers wanted to return to work straight away and were back on duty that the same day to complete their shifts.
I think that demonstrates the level of dedication and determination that our prison staff have. It’s true that we as a country don’t thank them enough. So I want to take the record today, I want to take the opportunity to put on record my thanks for the work they do, day in and day out, in our prisons. It is tough work, but it is important work.
And no prison officer should go to work in fear of being attacked. This is something I’ve talked about with my colleagues the Home Secretary and with the Attorney General. We are all three of us, very clear indeed that an assault inside a prison should be investigated and where there is evidence, prosecuted with as much rigour and determination as if that assault had taken place outside the prison gates. Where a member of staff has been assaulted by a prisoner, then that prisoner should, if the evidence is there, face justice – meaning prosecution and an appropriate sentence. That’s what happened recently with a prisoner Martin Marland, who attacked an officer at HMP Liverpool by wrapping a ligature around his neck. He was charged with attempted murder in October and is now serving 11 years and 8 months.
The Government is also supporting Chris Bryant’s Private Member’s Bill to further protect our public service workers, including prison officers.
They are after all, at the sharp end, helping to create order and calm and we need to help them to improve safety. We have now surpassed the halfway point in our target to recruit 2,500 extra prison officers, something that Liz announced here last year, with a net increase of 1255 officers since last year.
Safety comes not just in numbers, safety comes in having the right tools and resources to keep yourself and prisoners safe. That’s why in the last six months, we have:
- ensured every prison officer in England and Wales has access to body-worn cameras;
- we’ve introduced new ‘police-style’ handcuffs and restraints;
- and we are trialling the use of PAVA spray in situations where a prisoner is armed with a weapon.
These will make a significant difference in staff being able to manage violent incidents. But alongside that it’s important to look at the reasons why violence occurs. The overriding trigger for violence, harm and disorder in prisons is the availability of drugs and other contraband. And in particular, the game changing impact of spice and other New Psychoactive Substances in the last couple of years which is being actively promoted by organised gangs both inside and outside prison.
That’s why it is important we have been upgrading our detection measures across the prison estate.
‘Beat the BOSS’ miniature phones
But I want to show you an example of what we’re up against….
This will be familiar to many of the experts here. This is a fully functioning mobile phone, no bigger than a lighter, nearly 100% plastic and available to buy online from sites like Amazon, Ebay and Gumtree.
A quick google yesterday showed me you can buy a miniature phone, like this, for about £25 on the market. Get one inside a prison and it could fetch up to £500 – probably by way of a debt in which a prisoner who wants one, agrees to undertake, putting him in hock of the gang bosses both inside prison and after release as well. A huge mark-up. A huge financial incentive for the gangs. Again, there will be experts here that know only too well how these are smuggled into prison. For those that don’t – the size and shape would give a clue.
It is a constant challenge. Many of the advertisements are actually accompanied with the slogan: “Beat the BOSS”. And to most people, that might seem like the product gives you an opportunity to play a prank on your boss at work - to get one over on them. In fact, it is a reference to the ‘BOSS’ chair – a piece of equipment used by prisons to detect a hidden mobile phone that may be concealed about a prisoner’s person.
It’s pretty clear to me that these miniature phones are being manufactured and sold with the purpose of being smuggled into prisons. Why after all are they also advertised as being without any metal components.
That’s why today, I am calling on online retailers and trading websites to take down products on their platforms that are clearly intended to be used to evade detection measures in prison. I have written to Amazon, Ebay and Gumtree and I am keen to work with them to achieve this. Because we all, and in particular retailers, we all have an interest in seeking to limit and cut off the opportunities that are available to organised crime.
We now also have the technology to block a mobile phone from receiving a signal in prison. And we are going further. I mentioned that we were legislating where we need to. Maria Caulfield’s Private Member’s Bill – which has Government backing and which received its Second Reading in the House of Commons earlier this month – will enable mobile network operators to make use of their special technical knowledge and expertise to prevent, detect and investigate illicit mobiles.
These measures to target illegal phones, will I believe, help us to build on the success we saw last year in recovering record hauls – seizing 35 phones a day and uncovering 7,000 sim cards across the prison estate.
This year too, we have seen prisons delivering results….
Just last month, we saw a successful raid in HMP Hewell. This followed months of very careful painstaking intelligence work and planning involving prison staff from across the country, specialist security and search teams. They uncovered 79 mobile phones; 29 improvised weapons; and a large quantity of drugs.
We should recognise these as important successes yes, and are the result of much hard work and investment in intelligence and detection capability, but it also demonstrates the scale of the problem we face.
The fact is, our prisons are facing a clear and present danger from well organised individuals and criminal networks. These are networks that are every bit as professionally operated as a legitimate business, but they happen to be engaged in criminal activity. Over the past few years, these gangs have exploited opportunities to target and profit from what is literally a captive market in prisons.
Just as the gangs have taken advantage of miniature mobile phones, so too have they used technologies like drones to aid their criminal activity.
Smuggling has gone from the crude and opportunistic: a friend or family member chancing their luck, throwing a bag of drugs over a prison wall (but that still goes on at pace), to sophisticated and systematic: complex supply chains, overseen by professional criminal gangs, despatching and delivering contraband on a commercial scale.
So as well as responding to security problems, we must also get onto the front foot if we are to stay ahead of the criminals. In essence, we need to get more strategic in our approach to security.
Recognising that detection and seizure is our last line of defence. Our first line of defence is taking the fight to the criminal gangs themselves.
That is why we have been boosting our expenditure on intelligence-led operations: police officers are now working alongside prison officers to expose the criminal gangs, to stop them in their tracks and bring them to justice. I think it’s fair to say that HMPPS today is working more effectively in terms of intelligence sharing operation with the police and security intelligence agencies than at any time in its history.
We have now seen 28 convictions and combined sentences of more than 82 years for those involved in drone attacks against prisons. That includes 11 gang members convicted only last week to a total of 32 years between them for using drones to smuggle drugs, phones and weapons into prisons on a commercial scale.
These convictions will make prisons safer and more secure and send a clear message to those involved in these gangs: that we will track you down and that you will feel the full force of the law.
But there is at the end of the day no magic bullet, no single solution, no panacea to the problems our prisons face, but through this greater focus on intelligence-led work, through our use of technology in prisons and tackling the criminals’ exploitation of technology, I believe we can – and we are – bringing about a more calm and ordered environment that protects staff and prisoners alike – and trying therefore to create environments where offenders can turn their lives around – and turn their backs on crime.
Rehabilitation to reduce re-offending
Now, I know that is easier said than done – and that safe and secure prison environments are just the foundation for successful rehabilitation.
We know that nearly two-thirds of prisoners serving sentences less than 12 months reoffend within a year of release. When you are confronted by a statistic like that, it can feel like too big a challenge to turn around.
It’s also the case that the prison population presents us with virtually all of the social problems that we find in this country in their most acute and concentrated form. Many people here will already know the figures already - that a half of young offenders going into custody have a reading age of no greater than the average 7-11 year old. Truancy, exclusion from school, experience of local authority care, having been a victim of childhood abuse. These are features which in the prison population you find represented much more commonly than in the population as a whole. Perhaps most tragically, something like 2/3 of the sons of prisoners end up offending themselves.
But against that I just want to read to you three success stories that should give us the belief that things can change.
These are the words, not of politicians, prison governors, or even the chief inspector of prisons. They come from offenders themselves:
Bernie made me feel supported – that I have a life to live after prison. I felt like giving up, she gave me the encouragement I needed to make positive changes to my life.
Anna has helped me to understand that violence isn’t the only option and helped me express my feelings in a controlled calm environment. She has always been there for me when I need her.
My life for me ended when I went to prison. Vicky helped me to look up and forward and not to stay in the past.
The common strand in those three statements? Hope, yes. Self-reflection, yes. Encouragement, yes.
But what they also share is that were stories about a named person, a prison officer or another member of staff working in that prison, whom the offender felt was on their side, who was looking out for them, who listens and understands, who can help them to turn things around.
I want to see more Bernies, more Vickys and more Annas supporting offenders in both our prison and probation service – and, in turn, more changed outlooks and changed behaviours from offenders like those testimonies I just read out. And that is exactly why we are recruiting thousands more prison staff, and why we’re rolling out the new ‘offender management in custody model’, where each offender has a key worker to guide, support and coach them. And each prison officer, in his or her turn, will be responsible for half a dozen named offenders in the prison in which he or she works.
It is through our prison and probation officers working directly with offenders that we will help them to turn their lives around and make them less likely to reoffend. That’s why we are not only increasing numbers, but also seeking to bring people into the prison service from other sectors to bring fresh perspectives and different experiences.
It’s why we are recruiting and investing in the leaders of tomorrow, for example, through our Unlocked scheme, which is attracting graduates and those looking for a career change into to the prison service.
I met recently with a number of the first cohort of graduates who started in August as they undertook their cell searching training in one of the prisons in the Home Counties. I was very struck by their enthusiasm and their passion, and their diverse range of backgrounds. One was a banker, another had come straight from university looking for a first graduate job working as a prison officer. What struck me about all of them was that they were not applying for the Unlocked Scheme because they couldn’t think of anything else – they brought to their training, to their future work a real sense of vocation in seeing the job of a prison officer as giving that opportunity to make a difference for the better to the society in which they are a member.
In building a strong workforce that is focused on improving outcomes for prisoners, we do need to make sure that our staff are more reflective of the prison populations they oversee and in particular better understand the needs of Black and Minority Ethnic individuals. It’s a sad truth but we know that the quality of relationships with staff, it’s a generalisation, but it is poorer for ethnic minority prisoners than for others. And as the Lammy Review found, this group disproportionately feels they are treated unfairly and that the justice system is stacked against them.
It is a fundamental principle of our justice system that everyone is treated equally before the law and no matter what your background, everyone should be treated equally and have the same opportunity to turn their lives around. That will be at the heart of our response to the Lammy review, which I shall be publishing tomorrow.
Delivering secure, reforming prisons will depend upon us continuing to invest in our workforce. This includes nurturing strong, local prison leadership. That’s why we are giving new powers to prison governors so that they have greater freedom to decide how to run their prisons and design the support and services that will meet the needs of the prisoners in their care. I want to pay tribute to the pioneering work that my predecessor Michael Gove initiated – to give greater autonomy to prison governors.
Since April this year, all governors have had a greater say over the provision of healthcare within their prisons and the programmes run there to help change offender behaviour. They’ve also had greater freedom to determine how they organise their staff and spend their budgets.
In October, we devolved the budgets for family services so governors can now choose how to spend money on services like visitors’ centres and parenting skills classes. And over the coming year, we will give them more powers, in education and training so they can commission services like libraries and workshops.
Looking forward as existing national contracts come to an end I want to find ways in which to enhance further autonomy that governors have. There is obviously a judgment to be made about the balance between economies of scale, by doing things on a national level and the benefits of being able to tailor a service to local or regional requirements. I am keen to explore the contracts for things like procurement of food, for repairs and maintenance. Whether these are functions that could be better exercised either by individual governors or by a cluster of governors in a group of regional prisons working together.
Over the last six months, it has been inspiring to meet governors as they pursue innovative local initiatives that work for their prison, and to talk to prison officers who are passionate about the positive change they can make. It’s also been an experience to listen to prisoners who have taken up opportunities as they look towards life beyond the prison gates. So, while I can’t pretend that there aren’t serious problems and challenges facing our prison system, I have also seen the evidence of what can be, what is being, achieved. And that enables me to feel both optimistic and ambitious for what it is possible to achieve.
But I want to conclude by also saying this: the challenge of turning around the lives of offenders and reducing our stubbornly high reoffending rate can’t just be borne on the shoulders of our justice system. I believe that if we are to successfully rise to this challenge we need to mobilise more of government; we need a concerted effort across the public sector.
Take employment: we know that finding a job shortly after someone is released means they are less likely to reoffend, yet only 17% report being in employment a year after release. That is why we are introducing the New Futures Network, to build links between prisons and local employers and to promote to employers the benefits of hiring ex-offenders. And is why I am seeking to encourage other Government departments to join the Ministry of Justice in stepping up our efforts to ban the box and give offenders who apply for a job in the public sector the chance to compete on a level with other applicants.
Take accommodation: we know having the right accommodation on release is vital in ensuring they get back on their own two feet. You need an address to apply for a job, you need an address to apply for benefits, yet 30% of those released from prison didn’t have suitable accommodation on their first night of release.
For someone coming out of prison, having a job, a roof over your head and access to the right health treatments is vital if that ex-prisoner is going to have a chance of not falling back into crime and creating more victims.
So I want us to get much better at putting prisoners at the heart of the wider work of government. I am working with Cabinet colleagues to look at how their departments can target prisoners and ex-offenders with the support they need to find a job, a home, to get help with debt, or to get treatment for a drug addiction. If we can achieve that and bring the reoffending rate down, we are sparing thousands of potential victims of the trauma of being burgled, or assaulted, or robbed in the future.
To give you just one example, I have agreed with Sajid Javid that my department will work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to develop a pilot project focussed on enabling offenders to access and sustain tenancies following release from prison, building on existing government support for those at risk of homelessness. And we will be saying more about this in the New Year.
Prisons can be magnifying glasses for wider problems and inequalities in society. By ensuring prisoners have the right services and support, we can reduce the chances of them ending up committing more crime, ending up back in prison and starting the cycle of crime all over again.
So, I believe we are, more slowly than I would wish, making our prisons safer and more secure. Whether that is as a result of more prison officers who are better equipped with the right tools to deal with and reduce violence, whether it’s by improving our use of technology, or from tracking down the criminal gangs that are destabilising our prisons and bringing them to justice. Each of those initiatives contributes to that central objective.
I think those efforts are starting to make a difference on the ground. But safety and security are only the foundation. Real rehabilitation will come from supporting the day to day hard work of our prison and probation staff who can build those positive and constructive relationships with offenders. It will come by empowering prisons, led by their governors, to design the support and services that will work for them. It will come when we stop seeing the prospects our prisoners face on release as a problem solely for the justice system, but rather as a call to action for all of government, voluntary organisations, for the wider public sector, and for employers as well.
Our prison system has faced tough times, but with a determination to stabilise the situation on the ground and a concerted effort to support prisoners on release, I believe we have an opportunity to break that cycle of crime, to reduce reoffending and ultimately to create a safer, fairer society, for all the people in this country.