'Biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation', or myopic, misinformed and misguided?

Posted On: 
27th February 2017

The University of Exeter's Associate Lecturer in Criminology Dr Anna Kotova assesses the Government's newly released Prisons and Court Bill 2017.

"How are officers meant to enable rehabilitation and support family contact if prisons are so understaffed that the government has in November 2016 announced a need to hire 2,500 new frontline staff?" - The University of Exeter's Associate Lecturer in Criminology Dr Anna Kotova
Credit: 
PA

Elizabeth Truss announced what the Ministry of Justice has called 'the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation'. The newly released Prisons and Court Bill 2017 states that rehabilitation is now a key aim of the prison system. Yet did Chris Grayling, the much blighted former Justice Secretary, not announce a 'Rehabilitation Revolution' back in 2012? In what way does the Bill represent an 'overhaul'?
 
A close read of the Bill shows that Elizabeth Truss is operating within the old framework – a framework that has landed our prisons in disarray, with news of prison riots now being a weekly feature of my Twitter and news feeds. The government proposes new powers to stop telecommunication signals, presumably to stop prisoners using illegal phone calls. Amongst other key provisions is the emphasis on education and key skills like Maths and English. This is all well and good, but what is this tinkering at the edges going to achieve?
 
Disappointingly, these provisions do not address the sources of the problems faced by our prisons today. Prisoners use illegal phones, in part, because prison phones are extortionately expensive, often few and located in public spaces, making having meaningful personal conversation nearly impossible. As one prisoner’s partner I interviewed said – “there's three [phones] on the landing and there's two always not working”. Illegal phones often provide a much easier way of staying in touch with the family as they are more convenient, cheaper and private. Furthermore, many prisoners have been excluded from education – putting them back into a classroom setting which has already made them feel alienated is unlikely to be helpful.
 
Also missing are any specific provisions aimed at sustained family contact. As usual, Elizabeth Truss made a perfunctory remark that governors will be responsible for funds aimed at family services provision, such as children's play areas. How family links between prisoners and their families are to be supported, however, is not set out. This Bill provided an opportunity to innovate, to truly engage with rehabilitation. Families are key to rehabilitation - a prisoner is much more likely to not reoffend if he has a home and a support network to come back to (confirmed most recently in a University of Cambridge study in 2012). Back in 2013, the Prison Reform Trust, in their Through the Gateway report, recommended that technology ought to be used to support family links, and yet this Bill appears to be doing nothing in this respect. This is despite governors, prison staff, prisoners and families all agreeing that technology, such as video-calls, would held support family links across prison walls, especially when the prisoner is held far away from his or her family. Far from thinking these issues through, the Bill simply proposes that phone signals be blocked! Devolving powers to governors is also likely to have little effect if they are already struggling to operate with few resources and staff. Rehabilitation in general, but family engagement specifically, requires staffing levels beyond those our prisons currently have. How are officers meant to enable rehabilitation and support family contact if prisons are so understaffed that the government has in November 2016 announced a need to hire 2,500 new frontline staff?
 
Elizabeth Truss had an opportunity to embark on a real rehabilitative revolution, but failed, sticking to the old and the myopic. It's not an overhaul or a revolution - it's simply more of the same. More worryingly, the Bill ignores the problems running rampage throughout the system today. We need to stop talking about seemingly endless rehabilitative revolutions and actually start one.