We need penal reform before it's too late

When the newly appointed Secretary of State for Justice and Lord (note, not Lady) Chancellor appeared before the Justice Select Committee last week she indicated that legislation on penal reform would come, but just not yet.

Michael Gove spent a year consulting on his plans for reform. David Cameron made a seminal speech setting out new principles focussed on redemption and compassion. This was all very wonderful and it did help to change the public, and media, discourse. But, over that year, prisons deteriorated and community supervision that had been privatised by Chris Grayling slowly decomposed.

Things are so bad in prisons that someone takes their own life every four days. There is a record number of unexplained deaths, probably caused by a toxic cocktail of drugs. People are locked up in cells the size of a public toilet, and have to defecate in front of their cell mate, with little or no ventilation in the cell. They spend most of the day in this cell, lying on a filthy bunk in dirty clothes.

The few men (95 per cent of the prison population are men) who get any work, potter about doing a bit of cleaning on the wings for five pounds a week. There are some workshops in some prisons, operating at around half time, but very little meaningful work. Prisons seem intent on proving that work is something that pays badly and is very dull.

The number of frontline officers in prisons was cut by about a third, making prisons unsafe for staff and inmates. With little to do and no one to turn to for help, prisoners are frustrated and angry. Prisons are now dangerous places.

Quietly, there has been a recent reversal. The Ministry of Justice has launched a recruitment drive to get more staff into jails. The problem is that new staff do not stay. They do the few weeks training and once they get onto the landings and experience the challenges they leave.

Something has to be done. I don’t think that waiting for some convoluted legislation next year will do the trick. Something has to be done now. Too many people are dying, too many young men are tying a ligature round their neck in the quiet lonely night in their cell and dying by strangulation.

The Howard League developed a radical plan of action that would save lives, save the taxpayers money and deliver a safe prison system designed for a purpose. We put it together for the spending review last year. We suggested that the prison population should be cut to the level it was under Margaret Thatcher. This could be achieved by abolishing short sentences that only interrupt already chaotic lives, limit the use of custodial remands as 70 per cent of the people remanded by magistrates do not get a prison sentence, curtailing recalls, using women’s centres instead of prison, speeding up parole and ending sentence inflation.

New ministers must have a think and will always want to develop their own policies. But she just cannot take too long. Elizabeth Truss needs to take action, as prisons are in meltdown and people are dying.

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