Rod Clark, PET CEO | 31 July 2019
It is that time of year when thoughts turn to holiday idylls and relaxing in the shade with some good reading material, writes PET’s CEO Rod Clark.
I do not know how much holiday the new ministers – Justice Secretary Robert Buckland QC and Prisons Minister Lucy Frazer QC – are planning to take. And they could be tempted to look for something escapist to put the Westminster madness behind them for a spell.
But they have just taken on huge and urgent responsibilities. If they do find time for some background reading around prisons, what might that be, and what messages could they draw from it?
Chief Inspector of Prison’s Annual report – the scale of the challenge is huge
It may be a depressing read but the new ministers must be under no illusion about the scale of the difficulties facing the male prison estate. And the recent urgent notification inspection of Feltham A side is a stark warning of the conditions for children too.
As the most recent Bromley Briefing (another key read) puts it, “safety in prisons has deteriorated rapidly over the last seven years”. This means an unacceptable level of self-harm, injury and death for people under the Justice Secretary’s care.
Ministry of Justice Annual Report – the money matters
Inevitably the Justice Secretary’s civil servants will have drawn attention to some of the steps that are being taken to avert further decline. And key to that is the recruitment of prison officers going some way to reverse the staffing cuts following 2010. That is a change that is brought out in the department’s own account of its performance in its annual report – a worthy tome bound to be buried somewhere in the background papers.
Buckland and Frazer would do well to focus on what it says about the money. A small table on page 133 compares the gross expenditure by HMPPS between 17-18 and 18-19. The increase is all of 9.5%. Addressing the crisis has not come cheap. The new Johnson government will need to take some big decisions about funding in the next few months. The new team will have to remember that if conditions in prisons are going to improve, sustainable funding and investment will be essential.
Justice Select Committee report on the prison population – rehabilitation improves safety
If Buckland and Frazer are looking for some answers to the challenge of how to make prisons safer, they could do worse than to look to some of their Parliamentary colleagues for advice. The Justice Committee gave a clear message about the importance of rehabilitative activity in the prison system, not only to support better outcomes for prisoners on release, but also to make prisons places of hope and constructive activity that makes safety an achievable goal.
Understanding the experience of imprisonment
Annual reports and committee findings only go so far. There’s often nothing more eye-opening than hearing the point of view of someone who has spent time inside. And there’s plenty of material to choose from.
A good place to start is the memoir of Inside Time editor and PET alumnus Erwin James, Redeemable. To hear the perspective of women in prison, it’s worth taking a look at Jailbirds: Lessons from a Women’s Prison – individual stories of women in the criminal justice system collected by author Mim Skinner, who just this week delivered the keynote speech at our STEM in prison event.
If the new team are after a quick snapshot of the impact of education inside, they should look no further than the postcards we’ve received from prisoners across England and Wales. Answering the question “What does education mean to you?”, their messages touch on everything from mental health & relationships to personal growth & employment.
Unlocking Potential report by Dame Sally Coates – education at the heart
If the new Justice ministers have read this far they may be looking for something to offer some inspiration and optimism about what they could achieve. Dame Sally’s review from 2016 is still the most inspiring statement about how prison education can provide the motor of positivity in the grim circumstances of custody.
Education in prison should give individuals the skills they need to unlock their potential, gain employment, and become assets to their communities.
Let there be no doubt. Education should be at the heart of the prison system.
I hope that this is a message that the team can take to heart themselves, over the summer recess and beyond.
© Prisoners' Education Trust 2019