Lord Woolf: ‘Let’s take the politics out of prisons’

15 Apr 2015

"This was the rallying cry from Lord Harry Woolf at the end of his lecture marking 25 years since the start of the Strangeway’s riot" writes PET's Nina Champion, reporting back from Prison Reform Trust's recent lecture:

"Lord Woolf says a contest between the political parties on ‘who can be toughest on crime has to be resisted’. A timely message as the political parties launch their manifestos this week ahead of the General Election 2015.

Lord Woolf praised the recent report from the cross-party Justice Select Committee (Prisons: Planning and Policies) as an ‘admirable example of politicians from different parties working together to reach consensus’.  

Accompanying the lecture on 1st April, Prison Reform Trust have published a fascinating and detailed report looking at ‘Strangeway’s 25 years on’. The report highlights each of Lord Woolf’s twelve key recommendations from his extensive inquiry that followed the riots and looks at how far the recommendations are being achieved today.

As Aldous Huxley said "That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history." Listening to Lord Woolf, Patron of PET and Chairman of Prison Reform Trust, and reading PRT’s report, there is a sense that many of his observations and recommendations are just as important today, and that the lessons of history may be at risk of being forgotten:

‘Sadly the picture I am receiving at the moment is uncannily similar to that at the time of Strangeways. At a time of significant change stresses continued to occur due to over-crowding coupled with cuts in resources and staff. The consequences have included a number of near riots’, said Lord Woolf.

However he was also keen to highlight the great work being done in prisons, despite the challenging circumstances. He is Patron of The Butler Trust which on the same night as the lecture, were holding their annual award ceremony to recognise and award those working in the prison service that perform their duties ‘exceptionally well’.

There was a strong sense in his lecture however, that prisons are under increasing strain. In particular he pointed to:

  • Over-crowding
  • Our reliance on imprisonment that is ‘acutely out of line with other western European countries’
  • The cost of such over crowding in prison places, particularly in times of austerity
  • The lack of sufficient training, activity and rehabilitation programmes for the number of prisoners held
  • The ‘deeply disturbing’ rise in the number of suicides
  • Staff shortages and the impact on morale
  • Budget cuts
  • Prisoners being held further from their families and communities in larger, more distant prisons

As an example, Lord Woolf described a recent visit to HMP Wandsworth, hosted by ‘the inspiring and extremely experienced Governor and senior members of his team’. He described them as ‘excellent’ and ‘totally committed staff’, however the challenge of running the prison was made poignantly clear by a few key statistics:

  • HMP Wandsworth has capacity for less than 1000 men, but holds 1700 prisoners
  • There were only work placements available for 350 prisoners
  • It manages up to 32,000 transitional moves a year
  • It contains men of 35 different nationalities and members of 30 different gangs
  • The prison has lost 27% of its budget and 25% of its staff
  • There had been an 80% turnover of the Senior Management Team in three years

Dealing with overcrowding remains a key tenant of his proposed solutions, a recommendation he made 25 years ago but was ignored, leading to an increase in population from 44,000 at the time of his report, to over 84,000 today.

He draws attention to California and Texas, ‘which were once at the forefront among those promoting ever-increasing use of imprisonment, are now trying to reduce their prison populations because they are unaffordable’.

Lord Woolf is optimistic that ‘this country is capable of having a prison system which like out legal system is one that is admired around the globe for providing fairness and justice. However to achieve this we must ensure that our prison system uses the resources that it is allocated in the most effective way possible’.

He also highlights the need for a regime that is ‘fair and within the capacity of the prison to provide, so that the prisoner will be on release less likely – not more likely-to offend again’.

In conclusion, Lord Woolf implored the new government to learn the lessons of his inquiry 25 years ago and also to conduct their own similar inquiry; ‘in view of the history of what has occurred, this should now be determined after an examination of the justice system as a whole involving all sections of the system and extensive consultation’.

PET would welcome such a holistic inquiry and public debate on the use of imprisonment and how to use resources effectively to achieve the best outcomes for those in prison. We set out our views on how this could work within education in our 2014 Prisoner Learning Alliance report ‘Smart Rehabilitation’."

Lord Woolf also wrote the foreword to PET's third Brain Cells report in September 2014. He reiterated his argument in his original report that the Prison Service must support people in prison to 'make proper use of their time' and benefit from educational opportunities. Read Brain Cells: Listening to Prisoner Learners.