by Dan Bunting
Michael Gove, the new Lord Chancellor and Minister of Justice, is settling in to his post. It has not been an easy start for him – there is an all-out strike by criminal lawyers, more Judicial Reviews lost in the High Court, strikes in other areas of his department and bad grammar on his desk already. And that is before any consideration is given to the main ‘task’ of his tenure – working out whether it is possible to scrap the Human Rights Act, and if so, what it can be replaced with.
Against that backdrop, Mr Gove could be forgiven for burying his head in his hands and wishing he was back in Education. Or at the very least, concentrating on firefighting and keeping his department is under his control. However, it is (probably) to his credit that he is also trying to make progress in other areas.
On 17th July 2015, Mr Gove gave a speech to the Prisoners Learning Alliance entitled ‘The treasure in the heart of man – making prisons work‘, setting out his initial thoughts on penal reform.
After several years of Mr Grayling, Mr Gove adopts a more concilliatory tone. “I want to underline today – as I tried to when I appeared before the House of Commons Justice Committee on Wednesday – my admiration and gratitude for those who serve in our courts and prisons” are not words one would have expected from the last Lord Chancellor.
Mr Gove recognises that despite the incredible work done by both paid and voluntary work in the prison estate, it is still failing many people. The recidivism rate is high – “45% of adult prisoners re-offend within one year of release”. The situation for those serving short term (less than 12 month) sentence is worse at 58%.
With the youngest, where instinctively there should more possibility of change, the figures are even more depressing: “more than two-thirds of offenders under the age of 18 re-offend within twelve months of release”.
Mr Gove identifies the problem, the “prison estate is out-of-date, overcrowded and in far too many cases, insanitary and inadequate.” What he does not say is that this is mostly the consequence of a lack of funding over recent years. What, then, is the remedy?
Many of the overcrowded prisons are in city centres. It should be noted that these are sitting on very valuable land. It is proposed that more modern, spacious and sanitary prisons are built out of the city. This may also save money once the old sites are sold off.
Although the good sense of this can be seen, there is obviously a concern that this is being undertaken more to save money than to improve conditions. Another downside may be the extra travelling for families of the incarcerated (many of whom will live in the local city area). This may prove expensive and inconvenient for them, especially if they are reliant on public transport. There is a risk that this will cause further damage to what are often already fractured family relationships.
Mr Gove is more ambitious when considering ways in which rehabilitation can be effective. Prison “is a place where people are sent as a punishment, not for further punishments” is a view that is being increasingly under challenge in recent times, so it is good to see it appear in his speech. He focuses at this point on the power of education to rehabilitate.
He proposes a system of “earned release” – linking early release to educational achievement in prison. This would go hand in hand with tying privileges in prison to prisoners’ efforts in educating themselves.
More radically, he proposes that Prison Governors should have more independence and freedom to implement their own policies in areas such as education: the theory being that the market will show which system produces the lowest recidivism rate.
The announcement is light on details, but in fairness, deliberately so. Mr Gove is posing questions as the start of a policy discussion. We will no doubt hear more details in the weeks and months to come.
Will it work? That remains to be seen. There are some good ideas here, and it is difficult to argue with the importance of education. Clearly this not only provides intellectual stimulation for prisoners, but in many cases will increase employment opportunities; vital to decrease recidivism rates.
The key is probably, as it always is, funding. Many a good idea has floundered on the altar of fiscal reality. If Mr Gove cannot extract money from the treasury for this, then it is hard to see how it will ever work. It is likely that it will save money in the long run, but it may still be a hard sell to the tabloids.