Ministry of Justice
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Prison reform: Justice Secretary speech

Speech on prison reform, including plans to recruit an additional 2,500 frontline staff to help transform prisons into places of safety and reform.

It is a great pleasure to return to Reform – which has led the way on public sector transformation. It was in 2001 that you pointed out the answer to better public services wasn’t to simply “spend more money” but to have reform.

And there is no area of the public sector in greater need of reform than our prisons.

Every morning, I receive a list of incidents across the estate and it makes for grim reading.

On October 18th that incident report included details of the attack in Pentonville in which a prisoner fatally stabbed a fellow offender, Jamal Mahamoud, and injured two others.

This incident made the news. Many others did not. But on the same day there were 3 staff assaults, 2 more offender stabbings, a prisoner found hanging by a ligature; fortunately cut down in time, and a cell fire.

Of course it is impossible to eliminate risk in a difficult environment like a prison.

But the levels of violence and self-harm in our prisons are totally unacceptable and I am determined to turn the tide.

For without safety there can be no reform.

Of course it is right that the primary purpose of prisons is punishment – to deprive criminals of their most fundamental right: freedom, and protect the public by locking offenders away.

But the plain fact is most offenders will not be locked away for ever. One day they will be released back into our communities.

And if prisons are places of drugs, gangs and violence, this will spill out into society.

I believe that creating prisons that are centres of reform is the logical choice for anyone determined to build a safer society and deliver more efficient public services.

Whatever else can be said of our prisons at the moment, it cannot be said that they deliver a good deal to the taxpayer or do all they can to make society safer.

As the number of first time offenders reduces – something we should all be thankful for – the need to reform the remaining rump becomes ever more pressing.

Our reoffending rates have not shifted in a decade and amount to a £15bn annual cost to society. That is a high price for failure. The human cost is higher still.

Almost half of former prisoners will commit another crime within a year of release – another burglary, another mugging, another violent assault, all adding up to 100,000 plus crimes committed every year because prison is not working.

Prisons have a critical role to play in making society safer by cutting reoffending rates.

And for that to happen prisons need to transform into places of hard work, discipline and self-improvement.

Prison reform is hardly a new concept.

After visiting prisons in 1819, the great social campaigner Elizabeth Fry warned they were the “very nurseries of crime” and called for “schools of virtue” to be created in their stead.

Throughout the 20th Century any number of reports have heralded advances in safety and standards in our estate and yet here we are in the 21st Century with some of the same buildings that housed offenders in Fry’s day and prisons that remain “the very nurseries of crime”.

There is no doubt that inspired leadership, dedicated officers and the support of charities has seen pockets of innovation, challenge and change take root.

But comprehensive reform has not taken hold.

And I think one of the problems is that Parliament has not been clear enough about the purpose of our prisons. 
We need to say the prison system, as well as depriving people of liberty, has to be about reforming offenders. And we need to say that both are vital to make society safer.

In prison legislation, some of which dates back to 1877, the Secretary of State is accountable for “providing enough places” to house offenders.

There is no mention of responsibility for making prisoners less likely to reoffend.

And there are precious few clear mechanisms for the Secretary of State or indeed the head of prison service to be held to account for the state in which prisoners leave prison.

That is why today’s White Paper for the first time establishes a clear vision and framework for our prison system and mechanisms by which the people responsible for delivering it can be held to account.

For the first time, they make the Secretary of State accountable for the reform of offenders – not just providing them with prison places.

For the first time, there will be a formal trigger for the Secretary of State to intervene when a prison is failing. For the first time, publicly available performance standards, spanning a three-year cycle, will be set for each prison.

They will chart how well prisons are doing in preparing offenders to live law-abiding lives when they get out. We know that prisoners are less likely to reoffend if they are free from drugs that fuel so much crime, that they have the basic education needed for work and if they have a job. So we will set rigorous standards for each prison in these areas.

We will test prisoners on entry into the prison system and on exit.

And we will publish a new league table of prisons to show how well each is doing in getting offenders off drugs and getting them the education and work skills they need to get a job and turn their lives around.

New standards and public information that will shine a light on our prison system. That will expose the failures, highlight the success and drive improvements across the estate.

At present prisons are rather like schools were in the 1970s and 1980s before the advent of the National Curriculum, Ofsted and league tables. Jim Callaghan famously referred to the school curriculum as the Secret Garden.

In 1980 when my parents were looking at schools for me, what qualified as a good school was based on word of mouth. There was no way of telling objectively which were good, bad or middling. Which local primary challenged and got the best work out of all students. No way of knowing which secondaries were turning out Oxbridge hopefuls and which were sending pupils to join the dole queue.

We now know all of that – and it would be unthinkable to go back.

Prisons are more like secret bunkers than secret gardens.

But the case for greater transparency and accountability is as overwhelming as it is overdue.

So in future, governors will be given the powers to achieve reform and they will be held to account for it in an open and transparent way.

Raising standards

We will start by measuring how well prisons do in tackling some of most fundamental drivers of reoffending.

Drugs are a major cause of crime as offenders mug, burgle and steal to feed their habit – they are also the scourge of our prisons, fuelling violence and thwarting reform.

We have taken tough action to crack down on drugs in our prisons – including a nationwide roll out of mandatory drug tests for dangerous new psychoactive substances. But what we don’t test for at the moment is a prison’s progress in getting offenders off drugs.

So we will ensure offenders are tested when they come into prison and when they leave, to drive improvements across the prison system in getting offenders off drugs.

This is the first step towards a wider range of health measures. We are currently working with the Department of Health on a mental health strategy for prisons which will include plans to measure how well prisons are doing in supporting offenders with mental health problems.

And in the New Year Lord Farmer will publish a set of recommendations on strengthening family ties for those sent to prison. Having a stable family life to return to is a fundamental reason why some offenders choose to go straight on release rather than reoffending.

We also know that getting a job on release dramatically cuts reoffending rates.

And we know that to get a job basic maths and English skills are vital. Although the total number of prisoners participating in learning has steadily increased since 2010, participation in maths and English has remained static.

There are some great reading, writing and maths programmes in our prisons.

I chatted to some women offenders at HMP Bronzefield who were learning about percentages for the first time in their lives. I saw offenders at HMP Norwich getting to grips with BODMAS. They were motivated because they knew it would help them secure work.

But we want the pockets of good work to become the norm across the estate, so we will be assessing how much progress has been made on teaching maths and English in every prison. We will be developing a common curriculum for prisons and will be saying more about this in the New Year.

We will also be unveiling an employment strategy for prisons – to make sure offenders are getting training in the right skills for the modern jobs market and to meet employment needs in their local area. Too many prisoners are either getting no job training or spending time doing things like making mailbags.

Instead prisons should train offenders on the inside for the job vacancies on the outside. For example, with our new house building the construction industry is in need of skilled workers. Land securities has 20 vacancies for scaffolders, so what they are doing at HMP Brixton is training offenders to fill those jobs.

We are working with major retailers, business leaders and charities on a package that will offer a step change in skills training in our prisons.

I can reveal today that it will include a new prisoner apprentice programme – offering offenders training on the inside that will count towards the completion of a formal apprenticeship on the outside.

We will be signing up some of the biggest names on the high street and within British industry to commit to taking on former offenders as apprentices for a minimum of 12 months on release.

These are the first steps but we will go on to build on these league tables to give the public and Parliament a better understanding of how well our prisons are working.

This is the foundation for comprehensive reform across the estate. League tables that chart not just how well prisons protect the public and keep order inside but how well they prepare prisoners for a life outside.

Empowering governors

I recognise that we are asking governors to do a lot but I also know how committed they are to the job and to turning lives around.

I want to make it clear that although we are setting up the expectations on what we want prisons to deliver, we will be giving governors much more flexibility over how they achieve it.

Of course there are areas like security, intelligence and extremism where strong national leadership is required. But in reforming offenders it is those who see them every day who can challenge and motivate them.

It’s the officer on the wing or the teacher in the learning centre that gets the breakthrough, not the bureaucrat in Whitehall.

So we will release governors and frontline staff from the pettyfogging rules and head office micro-management that stifles innovation. There are currently more than 46,000 pages of rules and regulations governing everything from the number of shower caps each prisoner can have, 2 if you were wondering, to the maximum size of bath matts in our jails.

We will give governors control over their own budgets – taking the lead from the first 6 Reform Prisons that are already up and running.

From April 2017, they will be able to choose the behavioural programme that they believe will best tackle offenders’ criminal tendencies.

Governors will begin commissioning healthcare services jointly with local NHS managers in 2017.

They will gain control of education budgets in 2017.

They can start boosting their budgets by earning income for their prison and reinvesting it in their regimes.

And governors can choose who to have working closely around them by selecting their own senior management team - instead of those decisions being made at head office.

Safety and security

I have been impressed and humbled by the dedication of prison officers.

Officers like Wendy Fisher-McFarlane, who has dedicated her life to public service. Wendy has been a prison officer for 26 years – the last 18 of which she has walked the wings of HMP Brixton. She loves her job and takes pride in the part she plays in turning lives around.

I want Wendy to know, I want all prison officers to know, they have my total backing and I care about their safety. Prison officers must feel confident about their safety and what we are asking them to do.

I was struck recently how an officer described his job to me.

He said a prison officer must be part nurse; part teacher; part police officer and part parent.

But things have changed rapidly and dramatically in our prisons as dangerous psychoactive substances have flooded our prisons, fuelling violence and holding back reform.

I know the impact that current levels of violence are having on the morale of the frontline. I know that prison officers want to be able to do so much more than police the wings and turn the keys.

Lockdowns and restricted regimes sap the morale of the frontline, increase the frustration of the prison population and breakdown the relationships between officers and offenders that are vital for reform.

It’s why we have invested in body worn cameras, why we have trained hundreds of sniffer dogs to detect dangerous new drugs, it’s why we are working with mobile phone operators to block phones and with other government departments on combating the emerging new threat of drones.

Frontline officers need more support, which is why we will provide an extra £104m every year to hire 2,500 more officers by 2018 – strengthening the frontline and boosting staffing levels.

It is right that we recognise when a staffing structure that was suitable for the past is struggling in the present and must be strengthened for the future.

These extra officers will help us crack down on the toxic cocktail of drugs, drones and mobile phones that are flooding our prisons, imperiling the safety of offenders and staff alike and thwarting reform.

Extra officers will make prisons safe and more secure – by resolving tension before violence breaks out, carrying out searches for weapons and drugs, and building relationships with offenders.

We will also establish a new high-end intelligence taskforce staffed by experienced professionals that will share vital evidence across the estate.

And so prisoners think twice before using violence to settle scores, we will work more closely with the wider justice system to punish any criminality in jails as energetically as outside the gates.

Developing our leaders and staff

Prison officers are by and large highly professional, dedicated and capable people, among the most valued public servants.

Our plans will improve their working conditions, offer them greater support and put them at the heart of reforms.

We also hope it will persuade more of our experienced officers to stick with the Prison Service.

At the same time we will reinforce their number with new recruits.

We will focus on our armed forces for new officers who can set offenders on the road to reform by sharing their attitudes to duty, discipline and self-improvement.

There will also be a new scheme aimed at building a generation of apprentices who want to carve out a career in the prison service and a new degree-level Prisoner Officer scheme. Programmes that will deliver the next generation of talented professionals.

Building the right estate for reform

None of us, though, would look forward to working somewhere that is dilapidated and dated at best, dirty and dangerous at worst.

Nor do out-of-date prisons, with darkened corridors, cramped conditions and rat infestations, provide the most effective backdrop for reform.

Our £1.3bn prison building programme will see 10,000 places created in jails that are modern, efficient and designed to deliver a disciplined regime.

No-fly zones will counter the aerial threat posed by illegal drone deliveries.

Some of the worst performing jails will be closed.

We rely heavily on our armies of public, private and charitable volunteers, our prison visitors and monitors, and the thousands of social enterprises that do so much to encourage offenders to do better.

The new prisons will make it easier for all those outside the gates – including employers with vacancies to fill – to make effective contact with those inside.

There will be better visitor centres and dedicated spaces – not just the library or chapel - to work, learn and train.

Better workshops and classrooms, and suitable accommodation for offenders spending their first nights in custody, when self-harm is most likely.

The wider reform picture

Our reforms will not bring results overnight.

But they will establish a safe and disciplined prison estate for wholesale reform to take root.

The Prisons Safety and Reform White Paper is the first in a series of wider plans that will embed the same philosophy across the entire estate. At its heart are the principles of making our streets safer by reducing reoffending, intervening earlier to turn lives around and get offenders to quit crime for good.

In coming months we will build on these proposals, outlining our plans to intervene early and improve outcomes for women offenders and young offenders dealing with the specific issues they face.

And we will look again at probation to make sure that the progress offenders make in prison continues through the gate and into society.

It is vital that prisons and probation support all the hard-won success in cutting crime in this country. Since 1984, crime in England and Wales has fallen by 40 per cent.

We have got better at stopping people falling into a life of crime. We must now get better at helping offenders abandon crime once and for all.

As our White Paper proposals take hold our stubbornly high reoffending rates will come down and society will be safer still.

Only then can we say that we are giving the best possible protection to the public.

Only then can we say that prisoners are getting the best chance of turning their lives around.

Only then can we say that our prisons are working.

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