Every leader finds themselves drawn to make comments about penal reform. Rightly, of course; criminal justice is a fundamental part of the State’s purpose. And Blair made his ringing assertion, to “be tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime” – and promptly passed the whole mess to Straw. Who happened to be utterly weak. The legacy of Labour ‘reform’ was the IPP sentence, which has stranded thousands behind bars; and the order that no activity should take place in prison which doesn’t have public support – which handed the daily running of prisons to tabloid editors. The apogee of this risible outlook was the Chancellor of the worlds 6th largest economy taking time out to personally veto a pay rise for prisoners of 50p per week. This was the sum effect of Blair’s ringing declarations.
Any political fool can, and often does, mutter aspirational statements around prison reform. Quite what any of them mean by “reform” is usually left unspecified. What prisoners would call reform is usually far from any politicians view. A brief canter through the years suggests that penal reform is, at best, petty meddling and at worst blatant neglect.
It was my lot to begin my sentence at the start of the Thatcher years. Willie Whitelaw, “short sharp shock”, Detention Centres. It was a time of tabloid panics over “feral youth”, and Whitelaw took the bait. His response was to create a system for dealing with young criminals which saw them being trained to be fitter and stronger, whilst brutalising them. An utter failure by any measure.
Despite a blizzard of announcements and Criminal Justice Acts, the Tories actually propagated no policies which impacted the lives of prisoners until they were dragged to face the carceral shambles by the riots of 1990. The resulting Wolff Report was astonishing for several reasons. Most notably, the Inquiry took the novel approach of actually asking prisoners why they rioted? The Wolff recommendations were utterly sensible, and fell into the urbane hands of Douglas Hurd.
A resulting White Paper declared that “prisons are an expensive way of making bad people worse”. Alas, Hurd moved on and the air of optimism – that all things were suddenly possible – quickly dissipated. Few of the Woolf Recommendations were actually implemented. A moment ripe for reform was squandered.
The vastly more robust Michael Howard hove into the Ministerial chair, and was apparently outraged at the sheer negativity of his officials. The mantra “nothing can be done” did not sit well with the Minister. The results of Howards efforts still remain – the daily regime and control mechanisms that are every prisoners lot today is essentially the one created by Howard.
Why so? Why are prison regimes been largely left unchanged in its fundamentals over the past 20 years, despite the efforts of those who followed after Howard? It was Howards fortune to go head to head with an ever intransigent Prison Service in a period of crisis. This is hugely significant. The escape of IRA from Whitemoor and High Security prisoners from Parkhurst put HMP firmly on its back foot, and Howard used this weakness to impose his policies.
This is not to deny that Ministers can have no effect unless there is a background crisis. Labour fiddled with bits of reform, mainly of a negative type in kneejerk reactions to media criticism. Always a sign of a weak Minister, and weak Ministers get rebuffed by the criminal justice system.
A return to a Tory government saw Ken Clarke and his emollient noises, none of which became a concrete reality. And then Grayling. Ah, where to begin...? A forceful Minister but lacking any strategic vision. Whereas Howard imposed large sweeping changes, Grayling sniped. Is it really the business of a Minister what clothing prisoners wear in their first two weeks, or how many books they have? The only lesson to be taken from the Grayling period is that imposing negative reforms is far easier than imposing positive ones.
Which brings us to the present. Unlike Grayling, Gove isn’t fiddling with the minutiae of prison life. He is sensibly leaving it to prison managers to manage. Like Howard, Gove has a broader and more significant vision- but unlike Howard, Gove’s is firmly rooted in efforts to cut reoffending.
The question I have to ask is, is it possible for a Minister to impose a programme of reform on the Prison Service when there is no immediate crisis?