The Failure of Our Prison System is Scandalous
February 17, 2016
"The system will be hard to change, so I don't want to go slow."
Let me begin with a pretty extraordinary fact: it’s well over twenty years since a Prime Minister made a speech solely about prisons.
To be frank, it can sometimes be easy for politicians to worry so much that their words will be caricatured, that they might just as well avoid this whole area.
And it can be easy for us all—when these buildings are closed off by high walls and barbed wire—to adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude.
I want this government to be different.
When I say we will tackle our deepest social problems and extend life chances, I want there to be no no-go areas.
And that must include the 121 prisons in our country, where our social problems are most acute and people’s life chances are most absent.
So today, I want to explain why I believe prison reform should be a great progressive cause in British politics, and to set out my vision for a modern, more effective, truly twenty-first century prison system.
My starting point is this: we need prisons.
Some people—including, of course, rapists, murderers, child abusers, gang leaders—belong in prisons.
For me, punishment—that deprivation of liberty—is not a dirty word.
I never want us to forget that it is the victims of crime who should always be our principal priority.
And I am not unrealistic or starry-eyed about what prisons can achieve.
Not everyone shows remorse, and not everyone seeks redemption.
But I also strongly believe that we must offer chances to change, that for those trying hard to turn themselves around, we should offer hope, that in a compassionate country, we should help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path.
In short: we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed.
But the failure of our system today is scandalous.
46% of all prisoners will re-offend within a year of release.
60% of short-sentenced prisoners will reoffend within the same period.
And current levels of prison violence, drug-taking and self-harm should shame us all.
In a typical week, there will be almost 600 incidents of self-harm; at least one suicide; and 350 assaults, including 90 on staff.
This failure really matters.
It matters to the public purse: this cycle of reoffending costs up to £13 billion a year.
It matters to you: because in the end, who are the victims of this re-offending? It’s the mother who gets burgled or the young boy who gets mugged.
It matters to the prison staff—some of the most deeply committed public servants in our country—who have to work in dangerous and often intimidating conditions.
And yes, it matters to the prisoners themselves, who mustn’t feel that society has totally given up on them.
I’m clear: we need wholesale reform.
And I am convinced that with the right agenda, we can be world leaders in change just like we have been in welfare, just like in education—we can demonstrate that with the right reforms, we can make a lasting difference to people in our society.
Resetting the Debate
Now that begins with resetting the terms of the debate, especially when there are unhelpful, but well-worn mantras that I think hold progress back.
For years, education was set back by the soft bigotry of low expectations—the idea that the most disadvantaged children shouldn’t be expected to achieve the best results.
Likewise, police reform was partly set back by the false notion that the number of officers you had mattered more than how smartly they were actually deployed.
And welfare reform was set back by the lazy idea that fairness could be judged by the size of a cheque, rather than the chances you offered.
One by one, in this Government we’ve taken those arguments on—and we created the platform for reform.
Today, we need to do the same with prisons.
I think there are three views that have held back our progress.
And together, they’ve helped produce the sterile ‘lock ‘em up’ or ‘let ‘em out’ debate that I think has often got in the way of real change.
The first is the idea that prisons are packed to the rafters with people who don’t deserve to be there.
This is not wholly untrue—there’s a strong case for the severely mentally ill, or women with small children, to be dealt with in a different way.
But this position of some—that we could somehow release tens of thousands of prisoners with no adverse consequences—is nonsense.
It’s simply not borne out by the evidence.
Prisons are not full of offenders sentenced for drug possession, licence fee evasion or petty, victimless crime.
It’s actually pretty hard to get into prison in the first place.
Here are the facts: only 7% of prisoners are sentenced to custody for a first offence—and these will inevitably have been very serious crimes.
70% of prisoners have at least 7 previous offences, and the average prisoner has 16 previous convictions.
So you won’t hear me arguing to neuter judges’ sentencing powers or reduce their ability to use prison when it is required.
Of course, there is one group I do want out of prison much more quickly, instead of British taxpayers forking out for their bed and breakfast: and that is foreign national offenders.
One of the big barriers here is that we don’t systematically record the nationality of offenders early enough—and this can hamper our ability to deport them.
I know the frustrations of prison governors when they have to try to find out someone’s nationality after they’ve already arrived in prison.
So I can announce today that we will now legislate to give the police new powers to require foreign nationals to hand over their passports, and make them declare their nationality in court.
The second view that has held reform back is the idea that the only reliable way of cutting crime is to toughen sentencing and substantially increase the prison population.
Now again, there is some truth in this, and I know that incapacitation—prisoners being unable to threaten public safety while they’re behind bars—is absolutely vital.
I’ve made this point myself about prolific burglars many times.
That’s why we’ve toughened sentencing, including for the most serious violent and sexual offenders, and rightly so.
But I think politicians from all sides of the political spectrum are starting to realise the diminishing returns from ever higher levels of incarceration.
For a start, under this Government we’ve already cut crime by around twenty-five percent in the last five years while keeping the prison population largely flat.
And the truth is that simply warehousing ever more prisoners is not financially sustainable, nor is it necessarily the most cost-effective way of cutting crime.
Worse than that, it lets the other parts of the criminal justice system that are failing off the hook.
It distracts us from the job of making prisons work better.
And it fuels prison overcrowding, which hampers efforts to rehabilitate offenders—and that just makes us all less safe.
So the question must be: wouldn’t we be better to focus our scarce resources on preventing crime in the first place and by breaking the cycle of reoffending?
The third view that has held back reform is the one that says that prisons are too soft—that they’re a holiday camp, and we should make them harsher to provide more of a deterrent.
Now, I get hugely frustrated when I see the poor security that, for example, means prisoners able to access Facebook, or prisons that appear to be awash with alcohol and drugs.
We are taking more action on drugs, corruption and mobile phones.
We’ve legislated to criminalise possession of so-called legal highs in prison.
We’re developing a new Corruption Prevention Strategy to deal with the small number of corrupt staff who allow contraband in our prisons.
And I can announce today that we are going to work with the Mobile Network Operators to challenge them to do more, including developing new technological solutions, so we can block mobile phones’ signals in prisons.
But you know what?
Prisons aren’t a holiday camp—not really.
They are often miserable, painful environments.
Isolation. Mental anguish. Idleness. Bullying. Self-harm. Violence. Suicide.
These aren’t happy places.
It’s lazy to subscribe to the idea that prisoners are somehow having the time of their lives.
These establishments are full of damaged individuals.
But here’s the point: 99% of them will be released one day, back into our communities.
So we should ask ourselves: is it a sensible strategy to allow these environments to become twisted into places that just compound that damage and make people worse?
Or should we be making sure that prisons are demanding places of positivity and reform—so that we can maximise the chances of people going straight when they come out?
Think about it this way: being tough on criminals is not always the same thing as being tough on crime.
Principles of Reform
So we need a new approach—one that doesn’t waste too much energy discussing big existential questions about the prison population or trap us into often false choices between so-called tough or soft approaches.
We’ve got to move on—and develop a sensible plan for prison reform that will deliver better outcomes, improved public safety and lower costs for taxpayers.
Michael Gove is just the man for the job.
And I want to thank Ken Clarke and Chris Grayling for the good start we made in this area in government—and Nick Herbert for changing our Party’s approach on prisons in opposition.
In reforming prisons, we need to look no further than the approach we’ve taken in reforming other public services.
Our reforms have followed some general rules.
One: give much greater autonomy to the professionals who work in our public services, and allow new providers and new ideas to flourish.
This is how you institute a culture of excellence—empowering staff, as well as charities and businesses, to innovate and try new things.
It’s exactly what we did in education—with academies, free schools and new freedoms for heads and teachers.
Two: hold these providers and professionals to account with real transparency over outcomes.
Just as we have done in education and policing, we need better data—to allow meaningful comparisons to be made between different prisons so the best performing institutions and best performing leaders can be recognised and rewarded.
Three: intervene decisively and dramatically to deal with persistent failure, or to fix the underlying problems people may have.
This is the lesson from our Troubled Families programme.
We know piecemeal, fragmented solutions don’t work.
Instead, you need to see how an individual’s problems link together, and intervene in the right way.
So while we’ve got the opportunity that prison presents, we need to be far better at deal with and at addressing prisoners’ illiteracy, addiction and mental health problems.
Four: use the latest behavioural insights evidence and harness new technology to deliver better outcomes.
We’ve done this in welfare, for instance through the introduction of greater conditionality—meaning that those who are out of work must show they are taking meaningful steps to find employment, in return for getting their benefits.
And the number of workless households has fallen by an incredible 480,000 since 2010.
By applying these principles, I believe we really can deliver a modern, more effective prisons system that has a far better chance of turning prisoners into productive members of society.
So let me explain more what we will do in each area.
The first part of our strategy is to put professionals in the lead and to remove the bureaucratic micromanagement that disempowers them.
The prisons system today is incredibly and uniquely centralised.
Think about this, and think about it from the perspective of the boss of a prison—the prison governor.
924 prison service instructions and prison service orders are currently in operation.
These are documents issued from ‘headquarters’ to prescribe the running of our prisons.
Together, they amount to an incredible 46,000 pages of rules, regulations and guidance.
Now some of this will be necessary, I accept.
Prisons need rules.
But we’ve reached the point where someone in Whitehall is sitting around deciding how many jigsaws a prisoner should be able to keep in his cell, how many sheets of music they can have in their possession—twelve, in case you’re wondering—and even how many pairs of underpants they’re allowed.
Think about the kind of morale-sapping, initiative-destroying culture this can create in an organisation.
Want to try something new? Ask head office.
Think you’ve found a better way of organising things? Get back in your box.
Looking for motivation and inspiration on a Monday morning? Go and look elsewhere.
There’s a Governor I spent some time with this morning who made exactly this point. He said it’s almost as if, in doing the things he needs to, to get businesses in to prisons and to get workshops going ultimately he said he’d have to break the rules. This is obviously the wrong approach.
Prisons are often accused of infantilising the prisoners, but we’re actually infantilising the staff.
This is one of the toughest environments we ask people to work in.
And I want the leadership team of a prison to be highly-motivated, to be entrepreneurial and to be fired up about their work, to be a team who don’t ask permission from the centre every time, but are just empowered to get on and try something new.
So this is what we are going to do.
We are going to bring the academies model that has revolutionised our schools to the prisons system.
We are going to give prison governors unprecedented operational and financial autonomy, and be trusted to get on and run their jail in the way they see fit.
They’ll be given a budget and total discretion over how to spend it.
So, for example, they’ll also be able to opt-out of national contracts and choose their own suppliers.
Instead of being prevented from transferring money between different pots, they can decide what they want to focus resources on.
And they’ll also be able to tailor their own regimes—including the amount of time spent ‘out of cell’ doing purposeful activity.
I can announce today that we will create six such Reform Prisons this year, run by some of the most innovative governors from across the prison estate.
We’ll follow this with a Prisons Bill in the next session that will spread these principles across the rest of the prisons system.
And because we know that state monopolies are often very slow to change themselves, and because the involvement of the private and voluntary sectors in prisons has been one of the most important drivers of change in this system since the 1990s, we’ll ensure there is a strong role for businesses and charities in the operation of these Reform Prisons and the new prisons we will build in this Parliament.
Together, this will amount to the biggest shake-up in the way our prisons are run since the Victorian times.
And we’ll adopt the same principle in youth justice, too.
As Charlie Taylor’s interim review will recommend tomorrow, we’ll explore using the free school process to set up secure alternative provision academies.
In short: this will mean turning existing Young Offender Institutions into what will effectively be high quality schools that will demand the highest standards.
And we want to attract the best talent into our prisons.
I want us to make it even more aspirational for people to work in a prison and to want to run a prison.
So just as we have done with the police, we’ll put rocket boosters under direct entry and fast-track schemes to attract the very best into managing the prison system so that it can benefit from greater diversity, fresh ideas and new leadership.
Transparency and Accountability
With freedom and autonomy must come accountability—and that’s why the second part of our plan must be to improve transparency.
Here are some questions for you:
What is the best performing prison in the country?
Which is the prison that is achieving the best reoffending results?
Which is the prison where offenders get the best qualifications to help them get a job when they’re released?
The answer is: we don’t know.
Seriously, we have no idea.
This just isn’t good enough.
Any modern public service has to be able to demonstrate its value.
It’s how you can make meaningful comparisons between different services.
But most of all, it’s how the people working inside the system can find out what’s working and what isn’t working—and adapt accordingly.
It can incentivise more of the kind of projects I saw this morning, like the Halfords Academy that is getting people the skills they need to find work.
So I can announce today we will now develop meaningful metrics about prison performance.
We will measure the things that really count: reoffending levels compared to a predicted rate; employment outcomes for prisoners; whether or not the offender went into permanent accommodation; and what progress was made on basic literacy and key skills.
And I can also announce that we will not only publish this data, we will develop new Prison League Tables that allow us to easily compare different institutions.
This transparency isn’t just a very powerful way to drive culture change…
…it also allows the government to hold those working in the system more easily to account.
Using this information, we can use other tools—like payment for performance—to drive further improvements.
It’s working in academies, it’s working in Troubled Families, it’s working in the civil service—so I can announce today that we will work with prison staff to examine a new financial incentive scheme to reward staff in the best-performing prisons.
Intervention and Treatment
By introducing autonomy and transparency, we can get the structures right to improve outcomes.
But we often need more direct, and joined up, intervention to help turn people’s lives around.
Consider these facts: 24% of those in prison have been in care as a child.
49% have an identifiable mental health problem. Nearly half.
47%, almost half, have no qualifications whatsoever.
And behind these numbers, we have human beings.
Children who felt the raw pain of abandonment at a young age—pain that never goes away.
Young people who were abused physically by those they trusted most—with violence and fear often devastating the sanctuary of home.
Kids who never had proper discipline and so never learnt the virtues of delayed gratification or impulse control.
Arriving at school already far behind, and the frustrations of illiteracy or maybe dyslexia leading to bravado, misbehaviour and exclusion.
Exposed to alcohol and drugs too young in life.
Kicked out of the house as a teenager and learning to survive on the streets.
I spoke last month about extending life chances.
But we have to recognise that the prison population draws mostly from the ranks of those whose life chances were shot to pieces from the start.
This doesn’t excuse where they ended up, nor does it say anything about the anguish they caused for victims.
But it does, I believe, help to explain what’s happening.
This is important: cutting reoffending is just a pipe dream unless we truly understand the turmoil and the trauma that define the lives of so many who have ended up in prison.
This is a golden opportunity to correct some earlier—often catastrophic—state failure.
I want prisons to be places of care, not just punishment; where the environment is one conducive to rehabilitation and mending lives.
That’s why I’m so passionate about building new prisons.
I think it’s frankly a disgrace that for so long we’ve been cramming people into ageing, ineffective prisons that are creaking, leaking and coming apart at the seams.
These are places that were barely fit for human habitation when they were built, and are much, much worse today.
They design in bullying, intimidation and violence.
As one staff member told the Chief Inspector of Prisons last year, “ I wouldn’t keep a dog in there.”
So I am proud that this this Government has made a £1.3 billion commitment to knock many of these prisons down and to build nine new ones, including five during this Parliament.
As Policy Exchange’s work has shown, these new prisons can be far more effective at rehabilitating offenders, with modern facilities and smart use of technology such as biometric key systems.
But it isn’t just about new buildings; it’s about what goes on in them.
And here we must think afresh about prison education.
Over 50% of prisoners have the English and maths skills of a primary school child.
Many have learning difficulties.
But at the moment, governors have almost no control over who their education provider is, or what is taught.
We have only four organisations nationally who provide education in prisons, and the way these services are organised is not producing anything like the results we need.
We’re focusing too much on the number of qualifications—regardless of their usefulness—and neglecting basic literacy and good-quality qualifications that are actually going to help these people to find work.
This needs to change.
Soon Dame Sally Coates will publish her review of prison education.
It will recommend giving control of education budgets to prison governors, letting them bring in new providers—whether further education colleges, academy chains, free schools or other specialists.
I can announce we back that recommendation 100 per cent.
And we’ll go further: I can also announce we’ll protect those budgets in cash terms, with £130 million a year.
I also want the best and brightest graduates to want to teach prisoners, even if it’s just for a short period in their career.
So just as we have backed programmes which get graduates teaching in our worst schools or working in social services, I can announce that I have asked Brett Wigdortz, Chief Executive of Teach First, to advise on setting up a new social enterprise that will work to develop a similar scheme for prisons.
And I’m pleased to say David Laws has agreed to chair this new organisation.
Next, we’ve got to sort out mental health treatment and drug treatment.
This is one area where I believe that we, as a country, really need to ask some searching questions.
There’s been a failure of approach, and a failure of public policy.
In terms of approach, frankly, we are locking up some severely mentally ill people in prison who should not be there.
And that’s why, as a matter or urgency, I have asked Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt to look at what alternative provision can be made for more humane treatment and care.
In terms of policy, I worry that at the moment the design of mental health treatment cuts out governors and staff.
So I can announce that for mental health, we will now move towards full co-commissioning for governors and NHS England—meaning prison leaders can have much more say in defining the kind of services their prisoners need and how the available budget is used.
This will begin in Reform Prisons and, if successful, will apply nationwide from 2017, underpinned by new legislation in our Prisons Bill.
We will also publish healthcare data on a prison-by-prison basis, so there is proper transparency about outcomes and performance.
And we will also move towards co-commissioning for drug treatment funding, so governors have more freedom to set up the therapeutic communities, drug-free wings and abstinence-based treatment programmes that their offenders need.
When it comes to turning prisoners’ lives around though, there is a new front we need to open: tackling extremism.
We have around 1,000 prisoners who have been identified as extremist or vulnerable to extremism.
And we know, through intimidation, violence and grooming, some of these individuals are preying on the weak, forcing conversions to Islam and spreading their warped view of the world.
I understand not only what a problem this is causing for prison management who are trying to deliver a safe environment but also what a danger the risk of radicalisation poses for public safety when prisoners are released.
We will not stand by and watch people being radicalised like this while they are in the care of the state.
That’s why Michael Gove has commissioned a review of this issue.
And I want to be clear: I am prepared to consider major changes: from the imams we allow to preach in prison to changing the locations and methods for dealing with prisoners convicted of terrorism offences, if that is what is required.
I look forward to the review’s recommendations.
But I can announce today two things we will definitely do:
We will develop a new prison-based programme for countering the non-violent extremism that can lead to terrorism and violence and this will focus on those at risk of radicalisation, regardless of the crime they originally committed—as well as those convicted of terrorism offences.
And to deal with the most serious cases, just as we introduce mandatory de-radicalisation programmes in the wider community, we will also introduce these in our prisons.
Everything I have spoken about today is about what goes on in prison.
But rehabilitation doesn’t end at the prison gates; it’s about what happens outside them too.
That’s why Chris Grayling began the Transforming Rehabilitation programme—and it means every prisoner now receives support and supervision on release.
This was a huge landmark reform of the last Parliament that [INAUDIBLE] has the potential to make a real impact on reoffending and public safety.
Outside prison, I believe we should be really creative and much more open to the new thinking, the new technology, and the understanding from behavioural insights.
For example, Judge Steve Alm in Hawaii has been pioneering the idea of ‘swift and certain’ sentencing to deal with drug offenders.
Instead of just locking them up, they are randomly tested for drugs in the community on certain days of the week.
If they test positive, they’re instantly jailed for between 24 and 48 hours.
And then they come back out, and the process starts over again.
And the results are fascinating.
It’s perhaps the most successful community sentence anywhere on the planet.
Massive reductions in drug use and re-arrest rates.
Perhaps more effective than even intensive drug treatment in terms of changing behaviour.
Almost twenty US states have now adopted this model, as well as others like it—including drug courts and problem-solving courts that adopt a similar tough love approach.
And why do these programmes work?
Because instead of an uncertain and often random sentence, delivered months or sometimes even years after a crime is committed, this is far more instantaneous and much more demanding for the offender.
And because punishment is less severe but much swifter and more certain, it allows you to apply punishments far more frequently.
More punishments, delivered rapidly.
A real, meaningful deterrent.
That is how to bring about lasting behaviour change.
That’s why a promise to introduce legislation for a new swift and certain sentence was in our manifesto.
And I can announce today that the Justice Secretary and Lord Chief Justice have set up the first joint working group to examine how to deliver problem-solving courts in England and Wales.
We have also got to be much smarter about using new technology.
We have already pledged to expand the use of alcohol monitoring tags, which enforce drinking bans for those offenders convicted of alcohol-related crimes.
And there is also a huge opportunity presented by new satellite tracking tags.
Satellite tracking will be ground-breaking for the criminal justice system—meaning that the police and probation service can know where an offender is at all times.
It means we can tightly manage and accurately track someone’s movements—opening up radical new sentencing options.
Satellite tracking tags could be used so that more prisoners can go out to work in the day and return in the evening.
They could help some offenders with a full-time job to keep it, and just spend weekends in custody instead.
This could revolutionise the way we release prisoners on licence at the end of a sentence, and dramatically toughen up community sentences.
We’ve made too slow progress in getting this technology on-stream, and I want us to go faster.
So I can announce today that major new pilots will begin on satellite tracking later this year, and we will have this technology rolled-out right across the country before the end of the Parliament.
I especially want to look at how we use these tags for female offenders.
A sad but true fact is that last year there were 100 babies in our county living in a prison.
Yes, actually inside the prison.
In the prison’s mother and baby unit, to be precise.
Prison staff do their best to make these environments pleasant.
Some units even have special sensory rooms, so that babies can see colours, sights and sound—even nature—that they wouldn’t otherwise see inside the grey walls of a jail.
I understand why this happens.
But we should ask ourselves: is it right?
When we know the importance of the early years for child development, how can we possibly justify having babies behind bars?
There are actually women in these prisons who were born in the same prison twenty years earlier, and then have ended up there later as criminals themselves.
Think of the damage done to the life chances of these children.
I believe we’ve got to try to break this cycle.
So I want us to find alternative ways of dealing with women offenders with babies, including through tagging, problem-solving courts and alternative resettlement units.
There is one other area where I want us to be bold, and where we can use the latest thinking to make a difference—and that is to help prisoners find work on release.
There’s a simple problem: today, ex-offenders are often rejected for jobs out right because of their past.
I want us to build a country where the shame of prior convictions doesn’t necessarily hold them back from working and providing for their families.
Of course, I want businesses and organisations to know who they are interviewing.
If a conviction is ‘unspent’, they need to know about it and make the right decision for that business.
But here’s my question: should offenders have to declare it up-front, before the first sift of CVs—before they’ve been able to state their case?
Or might this be done a bit later, at interview stage or before an actual offer of work is made?
They’ve done it in America—it’s called ‘ban the box’- and I want to work with businesses, including the many who’ve already signed up to the Business in the Community campaign, to see if we can do this here.
And because I believe in leading by example, I can announce today that every part of the civil service will be ‘banning the box’ in these initial recruitment stages.
So this is our agenda for a revolution in the prisons system—all centred around those powerful public service reform principles.
This will take time and a lot of hard work to deliver—just as in education and welfare—and I’m under no illusions, it won’t be easy.
This system will be hard to change because it is, in some ways, still stuck in the dark ages—with old buildings, old thinking and old ways of doing things.
So I don’t want to go slow here—I want us to get on with proper, full-on prison reform.
And the prize is big: if we get this right, we can begin to deliver the lower reoffending rates that will protect the poorest who so often bear the brunt of crime.
If we get it right, we can change the culture so that our brilliant staff can be empowered to lead the world with new rehabilitation techniques and smarter ways of managing prisoners.
If we get it right, we can change lives, improve public safety and bring hope to those for whom it was in short supply.
Turning waste and idleness into prisons with purpose.
Turning remorse and regret into lives with new meaning.
Finding diamonds in the rough and helping them shine.
That is our mission.
Let’s get to work.