Pact CEO Andy Keen-DownsPact’s Chief Executive Andy Keen-Downs shares his thoughts on the Government’s Prisons Strategy White Paper released last week.

Harold Wilson famously said that a week is a long time in politics. Well, last week was supposed to be the Government’s Crime Week, during which they launched a new Prison Strategy White Paper.  It didn’t turn out that way. Instead, public attention and the media focused on the worsening news about the new Omicron variant, and on denials of stories of parties in Downing Street. The Prison Strategy White Paper arrived with more of a whimper than a bang, published in a document which included a set of questions inviting comment. 

Within the world of criminal justice and penal reform, there has been some commentary on the paper, and I’ve no doubt that many well-informed people and organisations will respond to the consultation process, in spite of there being no clear framework.

My organisation, Pact, is interested in the thoughts of people with lived experience of the justice system, and may respond formally to the Government’s proposals in the new year. In the meantime, in the hope that the Government is in fact interested in listening to the voluntary sector or ‘experts’, I thought I might just share some very simple observations, that perhaps someone in the Ministry of Justice, Treasury, or Cabinet, might wish to read and reflect on.

There are some sensible things in the Government’s White Paper. But there is a fundamental issue. Which is that the ‘Prisons Strategy’ is not actually strategic.

Growth of the Prison Population

The White Paper confirms previous Government announcements of the intention to spend £4 billion in order to increase the prison population by nearly a quarter, adding 18,000 additional people to the headcount of those who are locked in cells. £4 billion. To increase the prison population of England and Wales to nearly 100,000 souls. That’s before the running costs I believe. Why would we do that? What does that say about our self-confidence as a nation - that we expect to see a massive unprecedented growth in crime and have no ideas as to how to tackle the root causes, which include mental illness, struggling parents, poverty, inequality and of course, racism?

Never before has a British Government set out to achieve a massive increase in the number of people it deliberately plans to incarcerate. This is not Minority Report. We don’t have a Department of Pre-crime. But it appears to be based on the assumption that if we spend taxpayers money on an extra 20,000 police officers, their actions will result in more cases being brought to trial, more prosecutions, and more use of custody.

Never before has a British Government set out to achieve a massive increase in the number of people it deliberately plans to incarcerate.

It also appears to be based on sentences getting longer and longer. So, it is in effect, a policy of retreat and defeat. It carries within it the assumption that over the next decade, we will experience a growth in the kind of crime that is so severe that only a prison sentence can do. It assumes that rather than the extra police providing a calming influence, or deterrent effect, that they will simply discover a huge amount of crime than was previously being undetected, or that crime will just get worse.

This assumption is in spite of the Government’s Drugs Strategy, which was announced in the same week, and which speaks to tackling drug supply and improving treatment to reduce drug-related crime. So the Prisons Strategy projections for prison population suggest, in effect, that the Government doesn’t actually believe its own Drugs Strategy, and that over the next 5-19 years, you and I are going to be less safe than we are today. And we therefore need to pay £4 billion in taxes to build 18,000 more prison places.

Wouldn’t it be a better use of our taxes to tackle the causes of crime, and to ensure that when people leave prison, they are much less likely to re-offend?

Furthermore, how exactly are we going to staff a growth of this magnitude in our prison population?

Workforce Crisis

The White Paper alludes to ‘retention schemes’ to retain talented, experienced staff, but the truth is, we are in the grip of a very real workforce crisis. 

The running of a prison relies on the skills and expertise of a variety of staff, including operational support grade staff, civilian staff, and of course officers and governors. But here’s the thing - the people who actually run our prisons are leaving faster than they can be recruited.

Many prisons have struggled to restore regimes following COVID restrictions, not only because of outbreaks, but because they don’t have enough staff. I should make clear - I am not an employee of Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service, nor am I a member of any union. I have no vested interest in this. But until pay, training, career progression and management support is improved, any attempt at genuine reform will, in my view, be likely to fail.

Currently for every new prison officer recruited, at least one is resigning. Some are moving to Border Force. Some are taking jobs in supermarkets. Many of the new recruits feel overwhelmed and the turnover and attrition rate is high. Governors cannot run safe, secure, decent establishments without confident, professional, experienced staff. The vague references to retention schemes seem to me to be a wholly inadequate response. Where is the strategy?

Priorities

There are some good things in the White Paper. It’s good to see some investment in employment, addiction treatment, and in diversion. It’s good to see a recognition that families and good relationships are important aspects of rehabilitation and contribute to reducing re-offending (even if we don’t see any serious investment to follow through on the Government’s previous stated commitment to delivering on the two reports by Lord Michael Farmer). There are, in fairness, some other good ideas and commitments including a new willingness to stop releasing prisoners just before weekends when all the essential services they need are shut (we supported Nacro’s excellent 'Best Chance' campaign on this). The investment in better regional co-ordination across Health & Justice Is something I particularly welcome. So much about how we deal with offending is in fact a public health issue. So, we will give credit where it is due.

But mostly, the White Paper does not bring any big new ideas that we can welcome. And much of the funding announced is a fraction of what has been previously cut - from drug treatment and governors‘ budgets and other public services.

When looking for priorities, one has to look at the price tags – the biggest of which is that £4 billion on prison expansion. A prison expansion that in truth, no one is asking for, and for which there is no real logic. To put this in context, the UK already has one of the highest rates of imprisonment per capita in Europe. If we go ahead and increase our prison population to the vast scale described in the White Paper, we will be top of the European league table, with the exception perhaps of Russia and Turkey. And who is to say it will stop there? Why will 18,000 extra places be enough? How big is big enough? How will we know when to stop? Where is the strategy?

If we go ahead and increase our prison population to the vast scale described in the White Paper, we will be top of the European league table, with the exception perhaps of Russia and Turkey. And who is to say it will stop there?

An Alternative Approach: Building Back Better

I could offer a few simple thoughts for an alternative approach. One would be that new prisons should only be built to replace ones that are no longer fit for purpose, or in direct response to actual increases in overall population or recorded crime. And that we invest in those things that we know are most likely to prevent, or reduce crime, or divert people from prison where this is appropriate.

We could, like the Conservative Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, take a view that we should focus more on rehabilitation, and that this might allow us to actually reduce the prison population. A perfectly respectable, mainstream Conservative philosophy. We might, instead of aiming to be top of the league in incarceration, be top of the league in crime reduction, and thereby reduce our prison population to bring it into line with other civilised European social democracies. To achieve this, we might develop our strategy to pay and equip our prison workforce to be the best at rehabilitation in the world - Building Back Better.

We could perhaps spend £1 billion on modernising and replacing some worn out prisons and making sure all cells are safe and have some basic IT. We could perhaps switch the remaining £3 billion to invest in other things - in mental health community services and secure beds and therapeutic treatment for mentally ill people, and expand the use of community sentence treatment orders. We could, quite simply, stop sending mentally ill people to prison. We could spend some of the money investing in family life, in family hubs, in positive parenting programmes, in community youth programmes and in tackling child poverty. We could do all of this with a clear focus on tackling systemic racial inequality. And we could invest in our young people and communities to offer attractive alternatives to crime. And if we paused for a moment, and considered the futility of ever-lengthening prison sentences, we could give prison staff the space they need in which to focus on the real rehabilitation work that attracted them to the job in the first place.

We could perhaps switch the remaining £3 billion to invest in other things - in mental health community services and secure beds and therapeutic treatment for mentally ill people, and expand the use of community sentence treatment orders. We could, quite simply, stop sending mentally ill people to prison.

Or, we could carry on as we are. Building prisons we can’t afford, can’t staff, and which will become dead ends for tens of thousands of people. Literally, dead ends for some of the most vulnerable, mentally ill prisoners, who will continue to take their own lives. And if we carry on as we are, we will see this prison expansion suck away precious tax money, policy bandwidth, and resources from the things that actually work to make our society safer and better. Prevention really is so much better than cure. Let’s call time on prison expansion. Let’s have a strategy.

Follow Andy Keen-Downs on Twitter: @AndyKeenDowns

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