In all the hullabaloo around the PM’s migrant camp comments last week the most interesting speech he made this month was lost in the background. For the first time in 20 years, a Prime Minister delivered a speech dedicated to and solely about the state of Britain’s prison system. If that statistic tells you anything, it’s that discussing prisons is seen as a lose-lose situation for politicians, whatever you say, you’re bound to annoy some constituency of voters.
So let’s start by commending David Cameron’s courage, to quote Sir Humphrey Appleton, in addressing this issue at all. It didn’t come out of the blue, I watched him make some similar remarks at Conservative Party Conference last autumn, and he has hinted at a desire for fundamental prison reform at times over the years. Now, in Michael Gove, he has a great thinker with similar reformist instincts as his Justice Secretary, both are repeating the same message: prison isn’t working, despite costing taxpayers £13 billion a year. 46% of all prisoners and a shocking 60% of those with short sentences re-offend within a year of release, by any standards, that is a failure.
The Prime Minister’s solutions, promised by the end of the year, with a Prison Bill in the next Queen’s speech, include the building of six new model reform prisons, a league table of performance, more ideas on prison education, greater autonomy for prison governors, and in some cases, particularly with mothers, more tagging and day release. Clearly, putting more emphasis on prisons to improve their own performance with transparent league tables, and giving governors greater power to do so, is a step in the right direction. Similarly, better education and giving prisoners skills they can use in the workplace have also proven to reduce re-offending rates. As uncomfortable as it may be to discuss, the troubling issue of babies born in prison and mothers imprisoned for non-violent offences with children left in care and the subsequent social problems created also needs addressing. In some of these cases more tagging and day release may be the answer. Reform prisons, segregating young first-time offenders from hardened serial offenders also have a lot of value. None of this is cheap, but the cost of a failing system on society has accumulated through the decades.
Importantly, the Prime Minister also said he doesn’t believe punishment is a dirty word, it never should be. Stories of prisoners watching sky TV, or of murderers and rapists released after serving less than half their sentence, seriously undermine public confidence in the justice system. Sentencing reform, often a byword for leniency, is a two-way street, in some cases it may mean less immediately obvious harsh treatment for smarter, more targeted, punishment, but in other cases it needs longer sentences. This means tackling prison overcrowding through infrastructure investment.
Greater investment in our prison system is a wise investment for society, as the Prime Minister’s speech made clear. He didn’t pretend to have all the answers, but for getting us talking about a taboo issue he deserves real credit.