A year of opportunity and anxiety

28 Jan 2014

On Tuesday 28 January I was part of a large gathering from across the prisons, probation, voluntary and commercial sectors to consider where we were on the whole issue of offender management. The event, organised by the Westminster Legal Policy Forum, was chaired by those august parliamentarians Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Hodgson; and we heard from authoritative voices, Nick Hardwick as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sally Lester HM Assistant Inspector of Probation as well as spokespeople for the government on offender management and the Transforming Rehabilitation programme. It was a fascinating event, not least as a snapshot of how people were feeling across the sector. If I were asked to sum up the sentiment in one word, I think the word I would choose would be “anxious”.

A number of speakers, starting with the chair Lord Ramsbotham, expressed their concern at the pace with which wholesale changes to the world of probation were being introduced across the country without prior piloting to learn lessons. And as ever, the pressure to find further fiscal savings across the system coloured views of the prospects. Even those organisations looking forward to the commercial opportunities offered by the tendering of Community Rehabilitation Companies seemed guarded in their interventions pending the production of clear specifications for how the contracts and payment mechanisms were to be set up; and those larger organisations that are potential primes leading the contracts must feel a sense of greater control over their destiny than the hundreds of small voluntary organisations across the sector. To round off the survey, the ability of spokespeople for government to engage with the concerns was also constrained until more of that contractual detail was clear. My prediction for 2014 is that these concerns will not be dispelled easily however hard the various teams work on the implementation of such major change. Anxiety is likely to be a semi-permanent state for the sector through into 2015 and beyond.

And yet, as ever in the world of prisons and rehabilitation, there are sparks of light showing what can be achieved by using the potential of individual prisoners and effective professional interventions to help people on the long and difficult road away from crime. I was proud to be able to talk about our recent research from the Justice Data Lab which demonstrates beyond statistical doubt that support to study distance learning in prison leads to reduced re-offending. That is a great fillip for Prisoners Education Trust. It is also a hugely important piece of evidence for the importance that education can play in a rehabilitative journey. And I shared my time on the panel with Maria McNicoll of the St Giles Trust (another member of the Prisoner Learning Alliance) and Hedley Aylott CEO of Summit media. Maria was able to give practical examples of the difference early intervention can make in helping women in prison to keep their lives together through custody. And Hedley was able to talk about the huge potential for developing high level IT skills for prisoners given leadership from a prison to allow access to the IT and internet to learn and work in prison as part of a modern digital world (for more about how IT can be used in rehabilitation read our Through the Gateway report). I am optimistic that government recognition of the importance of education for young people in their response to the consultation on the youth estate can translate into seeing the same potential for adults.

Anxieties around wholesale system change will loom very large in 2014. But there are also opportunities to promote education, effective models of resettlement practice and far more bold and imaginative use of ICT to support rehabilitation. So maybe 2014 can be a year of opportunity too.