Last Friday a journalist was anxiously trying to confirm a story with the Ministry of Justice. The reporter, a dogged fellow, wanted absolute confirmation from my own lips.
I’m sorry, my departmental colleagues replied, the minister can’t speak, he’s in prison.
Well, the journalist pleaded, I hope he gets out before my deadline for filing.
Fortunately, I was out in time, but the multiple ironies of the situation were not lost on me.
Not least that it was a distinguished alumnus of the tabloid press who was pleading most passionately for early release from prison.
For anyone given ministerial responsibility for prisons, it doesn’t take long to appreciate there are many ironies, paradoxes and curiosities, in our approach towards incarceration.
Or so it seems to me. I have only been in this post for two months, and I am still learning. So any judgements I make are inevitably tentative and provisional.
I want to make sure that any firm policy proposals for reform I make are rooted in solid evidence, respectful of academic research and only developed after rigorous testing and study. But there are some observations I have made which I want to share today because they will form a guide to the kind of questions I am asking and the shape of policy I want to develop.
The good that we find in prisons
The first remarkable thing I’ve found about our approach towards incarceration in England and Wales is how many good people there are in prison.
We are fortunate that we have so many good prison Governors and Directors who work extraordinary hours under great pressure to keep offenders securely and safely in custody while also preparing them for a new life outside.
We are also lucky that we have so many dedicated prison officers who work in difficult and dangerous conditions, in an environment which by its nature is always potentially violent, and who nevertheless strive to help offenders lead better, safer and more fulfilling lives.
The death earlier this month of the dedicated custody officer Lorraine Barwell was a tragic and poignant reminder of how much we owe those who undertake the necessary but difficult work of managing offenders, work on which our entire justice system depends.
I want to underline today - as I tried to when I appeared before the House of Commons Justice Committee on Wednesday - my admiration and gratitude for those who serve in our courts and prisons.
Indeed, in the prisons I have visited so far I have been struck, again and again, by the seriousness with which Governors take their responsibility for the souls in their care, and the combination of strict professionalism and humanity which marks the work of most prison officers. Few of us get to observe this work, fewer still would volunteer to do it, but all of us benefit from the dedicated service of those who work in our prisons, public and private.
I should say at this stage that the quality of our Governors and the professionalism of so many staff is not an accident, but a consequence of the leadership shown by Michael Spurr, the quite outstanding public servant who runs the National Offender Management Service. There are few people in public service as dedicated, knowledgeable, hard-working, principled and decent as Michael, and few people who would blush so much to hear it said.
And alongside those who are Governors and officers there are psychologists and chaplains, teachers and careers advisers, trained chefs and FE lecturers, volunteers from the arts and workers from charitable organisations who devote long hours, often for very little material reward, to help rehabilitate offenders.
All of us owe them a debt, because their work is, by definition, hidden from public view, often hard and frustrating and challenging to the spirit.
That so many people, from so many different professions, contribute to the work of rehabilitation in our prisons for so little reward or recognition is both humbling and inspiring.
And while individuals of every background contribute in so many ways it is striking how many of those who do work in our prisons are people of faith, from a huge variety of backgrounds.
The exhortation in St Matthew’s Gospel to help the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned is taken seriously, and lived out, by thousands of our fellow citizens every week. We should celebrate their example, and the faith which sustains them.
But while there are so many good people in our prisons, we are still, as a society, failing to make prisons work as they should.
And the failures which we lament
Prisons do work in isolating dangerous offenders from the rest of society, contributing to safer homes and streets. Prisons also work by punishing those who defy the law and prey on the weak, by depriving them of their liberty. Civilization depends on clear sanctions being imposed by the state on those who challenge the rules which guarantee liberty for the law-abiding.
But our prisons are not working in other - crucial - ways. Prisons are not playing their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should.
While individuals are in custody the state is responsible for every aspect of their welfare. We can determine who prisoners see, how they eat, wash and sleep. We can decide how they spend their day, what influences they are exposed to, what expectations we will hold them to, what they can watch, read and hear, what behaviour is rewarded and what actions punished, who we expect them to admire and what we hope they will aspire to.
And yet, despite this, 45% of adult prisoners re-offend within one year of release. For those prisoners serving shorter sentences - those of less than twelve months - the figure rises to 58%. And, saddest of all, more than two-thirds of offenders under the age of 18 re-offend within twelve months of release.
The human cost of this propensity to re-offend is, of course, borne by those who are the most frequent victims of crime - the poorest in our society. It is those without high hedges and sophisticated alarms, those who live in communities blighted by drug dealing and gang culture, those who have little and aspire to only a little more, who are the principal victims of our collective failure to redeem and rehabilitate offenders.
No government serious about building one nation, no minister concerned with greater social justice, can be anything other than horrified by our persistent failure to reduce re-offending.
As I have already acknowledged, there are many good people working in our prisons today but they are working in conditions which make their commitment to rehabilitation more and more difficult to achieve.
Our current prison estate is out-of-date, overcrowded and in far too many cases, insanitary and inadequate.
The most conspicuous, most recent, example of the problem we face was outlined in the Chief Inspector of Prison’s report into Pentonville. A Victorian institution opened in 1842 which is supposed to hold 900 offenders now houses 1300. The Chief Inspector’s team found blood-stained walls, piles of rubbish and food waste, increasing levels of violence, an absence of purposeful activity and widespread drug-taking. Not only are measures to reduce drug-taking among prisoners admitted with an addiction unsuccessful overall, nearly one in ten previously clean prisoners reported that they acquired a drug habit while in Pentonville.
Of course, Pentonville is the most dramatic example of failure within the prison estate, but its problems, while more acute than anywhere else, are very far from unique. Overall, across the prison estate, the number of prisoners in overcrowded cells is increasing.
Violence towards prisoners and prison staff is increasing and incidences of self-harm and suicide are also increasing. In the last year serious assaults in prison have risen by a third. In 2014/15 there were 239 deaths in custody; around a third were self-inflicted.
There are a number of factors driving these trends.
As crime overall has fallen, convictions for serious crime have not, so a higher proportion of offenders in our jails are guilty of significant offences. And among younger offenders, many are involved in gangs, and especially difficult to manage because they are committed to a culture of violence and revenge whether on the streets or in custody.
In addition, there has been a worrying increase in the availability of psycho-active substances, chemically-manufactured cannabinoids and other synthetic intoxicants, which are sometimes, misleadingly known as “legal highs”. As my colleague the Prisons Minister Andrew Selous has pointed out, they should, more accurately, be known as “lethal highs” because they can induce paranoia and psychotic episodes which lead to violent acts of self-harm and dreadful assaults on others.
Dealing with these problems in our jails has to be the first priority of those of us charged with prison policy. Unless offenders are kept safe and secure, in decent surroundings, free from violence, disorder and drugs, then we cannot begin to prepare them for a better, more moral, life.
My predecessors in this role, Ken Clarke and Chris Grayling, and Andrew’s predecessors as Prisons Minister, Crispin Blunt and Jeremy Wright knew this. And they also knew the work of change would not be easy.
Thanks to their efforts steps are being taken to improve safety and security in our jails.
New operational and legislative responses are being introduced to strengthen the efforts to keep illegal drugs out of prison and to tackle the threat posed by new psychoactive substances.
We are trialling a new body scanner to prevent contraband from entering prison, strengthening our response to the threats posed by illicit mobile phones and taking measures to deal more effectively with those offenders who have links to organised crime networks outside prison.
And as well as enhanced security measures there is an increased emphasis on educating prisoners, their visitors and prison staff on the dangers posed by these substances.
But, as Ken and Chris knew, more needs to be done.
That’s why I think we have to consider closing down the ageing and ineffective Victorian prisons in our major cities, reducing the crowding and ending the inefficiencies which blight the lives of everyone in them and building new prisons which embody higher standards in every way they operate.
The money which could be raised from selling off inner city sites for development would be significant.
It could be re-invested in a modern prison estate where prisoners do not have to share overcrowded accommodation but also where the dark corners that facilitate bullying, drug-taking and violence could increasingly be designed out.
By getting the law right, getting operational practice right and getting the right, new, buildings we can significantly improve the security and safety of our prisons.
But the most important transformation I think we need to make is not in the structure of the estate, it’s in the soul of its inmates.
Who do we imprison?
People go to prison because they have made bad choices. They have hurt others, wrecked their homes, deprived them of the things they cherish, violated innocence, broken lives and destroyed families. They have to be punished because no society can protect the weak and uphold virtue unless there is a clear bright line between civilised behaviour and criminality.
But there is something curious about those who find themselves making bad choices, crossing that line, and ending up in prison.
They are - overwhelmingly - drawn from the ranks of those who have grown up in circumstances of the greatest deprivation of all - moral deprivation - without the resources to reinforce virtue. And recognising that is critical to making prisons work.
The temptation to do the wrong but convenient thing and the willingness to follow the right, but hard course, the propensity to lie and the determination to be honest, the tendency to cut moral corners and the inclination to serve rather than seize must be mixed in all of us. And it must be equally spread across tribes and classes, faiths and families. None has a monopoly on virtue.
And yet the population in our prisons is drawn - overwhelmingly - from a particular set of backgrounds.
Prisoners come - disproportionately - from backgrounds where they were deprived of proper parenting, where the home they first grew up in was violent, where they spent time in care, where they experienced disrupted and difficult schooling, where they failed to get the qualifications necessary to succeed in life and where they got drawn into drug-taking.
Three quarters of young offenders had an absent father, one third had an absent mother, two-fifths have been on the child protection register because they were at risk of abuse and neglect.
- 41% of prisoners observed domestic violence as a child
- 24% of prisoners were taken into care as children. That compares with just 2% of the general population
- 42% of those leaving prison had been expelled from school when children compared to 2% of general population
- 47% have no school qualifications at all - not one single GCSE - this compares to 15% of the working age general population
- Between 20 and 30% of prisoners have learning difficulties or disabilities and 64% have used Class A drugs
Now, it must be said, that there are many young people who grow up in difficult circumstances, who experience poor parenting and who spend time in care who nevertheless lead successful and morally exemplary lives.
But they deserve special praise because growing up in a home where love is absent or fleeting, violence is the norm and stability a dream is a poor preparation for adult life, for any life.
Children who grow up in homes where there is no structure and stability, where parents are under pressure, mentally ill, in the grip of substance abuse or neglectful and abusive in other ways are less likely to succeed at school.
Children who lack support when they’re learning, in particular boys who find difficulty in learning to read often mask their failure with shows of bravado and short-tempered aggression or just opt out of school life altogether. Boys start playing truant, become excluded and then find role models not in professional adults who achieve success through hard work but in gang leaders who operate without constraints in a world of violent, drug-fuelled, hedonism.
It should not surprise us that young people who grow up in circumstances where the moral reinforcement the rest of us enjoy is absent are more likely to make bad choices.
Why there must be punishment
Now that should not lead us to weaken our attachment to the codes, rules and laws which keep our nation civilized, nor should we shy away from the punishment necessary to uphold those rules and protect the weak. The people who would, in any case, be hurt most by relaxing our laws against drugs, violence, abuse and cruelty would be those who have grown up in homes plagued by those evils, all too many of whom have themselves in turn been brutalised and coarsened into criminality. We must not, therefore, in the American phrase “define deviancy down”. We must not imagine that softening the laws on drugs, or shying away from exemplary penalties for violent conduct, will make life easier and safer for children growing up in disordered, abusive and neglectful surroundings.
We can, of course, intervene earlier in the lives of these children. And the work led by my colleagues Nicky Morgan and Edward Timpson to improve child protection, support children in care better, speed up adoption and strengthen social work will all make a difference.
As will the changes to school behaviour policy pioneered by Charlie Taylor and Nick Gibb and now being built on by Nick and Tom Bennett. Tighter rules on truancy, more sanctions for bad behaviour and improved services for children at risk of exclusion will all help. As indeed will welfare changes which support more people into work and provide the right incentives for the right choices.
But even as these reforms are implemented at pace, and even as we strive for greater social justice we must also remember the imperatives of criminal justice.
When individuals transgress then punishment should be swift and certain. The courts should ensure victims do not have to wait long months before criminals face trial and the sentences passed down should be applied proportionally and reflect the moral sentiments of the public in a democracy.
Why there must be a new approach to prison
Then, however, after an offender is caught, convicted and sentenced, when they are placed in custody they are placed in our care.
Prison is a place where people are sent as a punishment, not for further punishments. And if we ensure that prisons are calm, orderly, purposeful places where offenders can learn the self-discipline, the skills and the habits which will prepare them for outside life then we can all benefit.
Human beings whose lives have been reckoned so far in costs - to society, to the criminal justice system, to victims and to themselves - can become assets - citizens who can contribute and demonstrate the human capacity for redemption.
And offenders whose irresponsibility has caused pain and grief can learn the importance of taking responsibility for their lives, becoming moral actors and better citizens.
As Winston Churchill argued, there should be “a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man.”
Which is why in the reform programme our prisons need we must put a far greater emphasis on inculcating the virtues which are, in Churchill’s words, “curative and regenerating”, and which rehabilitate prisoners, as he argued for, “in the world of industry”.
Liberating prisoners through learning
That means an end to the idleness and futility of so many prisoners’ days. A fifth of prisoners are scarcely out of their cells for more than a couple of hours each day. As the Chief Inspector of Prisons argued so powerfully this week:
Our judgement that purposeful activity outcomes were only good or reasonably good in 25% of the adult male prisons we inspected is of profound concern. It is hard to imagine anything less likely to rehabilitate prisoners than days spent lying on their bunks in squalid cells watching daytime TV.
Ofsted inspection of prison education confirms that one in five prisons are inadequate for their standard of education and another two-fifths require improvement. Fewer than half are good, scarcely any outstanding.
In prisons there is a - literally - captive population whose inability to read properly or master basic mathematics makes them prime candidates for re-offending. Ensuring those offenders become literate and numerate makes them employable and thus contributors to society, not a problem for our communities. Getting poorly-educated adults to a basic level of literacy and numeracy is straightforward, if tried and tested teaching models are followed, as the armed forces have demonstrated. So the failure to teach our prisoners a proper lesson is indefensible.
I fear the reason for that is, as things stand, we do not have the right incentives for prisoners to learn or for prison staff to prioritise education. And that’s got to change.
I am attracted to the idea of earned release for those offenders who make a commitment to serious educational activity, who show by their changed attitude that they wish to contribute to society and who work hard to acquire proper qualifications which are externally validated and respected by employers.
I think more could be done to attach privileges in prison to attendance and achievement in education. But I believe the tools to drive that change need to be in the hands of Governors.
At the moment I fear that one of the biggest brakes on progress in our prisons is the lack of operational autonomy and genuine independence enjoyed by Governors. Whether in state or private prisons, there are very tight, centrally-set, criteria on how every aspect of prison life should be managed. Yet we know from other public services - from the success of foundation hospitals and academy schools - that operational freedom for good professionals drives innovation and improvement. So we should explore how to give Governors greater freedom - and one of the areas ripest for innovation must be prison education.
At the moment, Governors don’t determine who provides education in their prisons, they have little control over quality and few effective measures which allow them to hold education providers to account. If we gave Governors more control over educational provision they could be much more imaginative, and demanding, in what they expect of both teachers and prisoners.
A more rigorous monitoring of offenders’ level of educational achievements on entry, and on release, would mean Governors could be held more accountable for outcomes and the best could be rewarded for their success.
Giving Governors more autonomy overall would enable us to establish, and capture, good practice in a variety of areas and spread it more easily.
Allowing Governors greater space for research into, and discussion of, practical penal policy reform would reinforce a culture of innovation and excellence which would benefit us all.
As would welcoming more providers into the care and education of offenders. Just as visionary organisations like Harris and ARK have widened the range of organisations running great state schools in this country, and thanks to my predecessor Chris Grayling new organisations are helping to improve probation, so new providers have a role to play in helping us manage young offenders, improve educational outcomes in prison and indeed possibly manage some of the new prison provision we need to build.
These are technical - and complex - policy questions. As I ask them I do so in a spirit of genuine inquiry - I am open to good ideas - from wherever they come - which will help us improve our prisons.
But while I am open to all ideas, and keen to engage with the widest range of voices, there is a drive to change things, an urgent need to improve how we care for offenders, which will shape my response. We must be more demanding of our prisons, and more demanding of offenders, making those who run our prisons both more autonomous and more accountable while also giving prisoners new opportunities by expecting them to engage seriously and purposefully in education and work.
Our streets will not be safer, our children will not be properly protected and our future will not be more secure unless we change the way we treat offenders and offenders then change their lives for the better. There is a treasure, if only you can find it, in the heart of every man, said Churchill. It is in that spirit we will work.
(Speaker’s notes, may differ from delivered version)