On November 4th, Michael Gove gave a speech at The Howard League for Penal Reform's Annual General Meeting (AGM). Before his arrival, during the members-only meeting, the panel noted that the most stark difference between Gove and his predecessor, Chris Grayling, was that he was willing to engage with the NPO at all. He treated them with courtesy, and respect. His first actions in office have been to scrap: the Ban on Books to prisoners, the building of a children's 'mega-jail', and Grayling's 'Justice Solutions International' (JSL) project which hoped to sell the UK's 'expertise' in prisons, probation, payment by results, tagging, offender management, and even privatization, to countries such as Saudi Arabia for millions (£5.9m in the Saudi case).
As first steps go, they were long, bold, strides. And whilst I am as excited about, and supportive of, Gove's new direction - and understand the significance of his U-turn - as much as anyone else, as I sat no more than six feet away during the speech the Chief Executive of The Howard League, Frances Crook later said she was "blown away" by, and whilst the media that surrounds Gove is nothing short of evocative, I still felt primarily cautious and circumspect, for the following reasons:
1. His 'framing' of crime - His start point
Fundamentally there are social and individual causes of crime, and Gove recognised this in the beginning of his speech. With a caveat. He spoke of the 'poverty of love' and 'affection' in prisoner's childhood homes, the role of parenting and the 'importance of social work' (words the Chair of the Howard League Sue Wade remarked she had never heard from a Justice Secretary in all her time with the League). He spoke of those 'excluded' and 'disconnected' from institutions such as education. Therefore seemingly recognising that social inequality and exclusion yield members of society whom may resort to other methods of obtaining income etc.
However, it is in the other half of Gove's language, and where he sees these social issues as stemming from, that we see a neoconservative framing of crime develop. For he also said that there is an 'impulsivity in adults' which stems from 'poor parenting', a lack of respect for 'deferred gratification'. That individuals are not 'rounded' or 'successful' when they partake in crime, that they are 'letting down' their communities, and that most, but not all, are 'rational actors'. They suffer from a type of 'moral poverty'. Therefore, crime is a result of individual behaviour, and not through fault of the state or capitalism. His plans for rehabilitation in prisons also recognise that this profile primarily fits working class, young males, with fragmented backgrounds in education and employment. Ignoring this position's issues for now, remember this point later.
2. The privatization of rehabilitation
Gove said that he wishes to emphasize and focus upon ‘rehabilitation’, which exists amongst the 'other roles' of prison such as to 'incapacitate' and 'deter'. He said that 'prison works' (a significant statement in itself) when there is: education, when individuals are able to 'make a contribution', when there is work 'to find self-discipline', and when individuals are able to build some of their first positive relationships with these concepts.
But his plans for rehabilitation through work and education were overtly declared to be tied to levels of privatisation. What many would consider to be oil and water. Particularly given the laughable, and devastating effect his predecessor’s privatization has had. Gove also mentioned the need for new technologies in prison, such as body-worn cameras for staff, to reduce existing levels of staff-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff violence.
When you analyse these concepts holistically you see a strong economic rationale, particularly giving the group of prisoners he is primarily focusing on. One of the key economic indicators the UK is struggling with currently is productivity. There are over 80,000 prisoners in the UK whom are not economically active, legally. By creating the demand for privatised rehabilitation you invite the supply of the industry that will underpin it. How does the government gain from this? It gains a work-force it did not have before, two-fold - whilst in, and when out of prison - and the development and strengthening of an industry (privatised prison education, work/labor). A lack of industry and manufacturing are currently core to the UK's financial insecurity.
Outsourcing to private firms is economically sound because those businesses will later contribute to the economy through their own spending and investment (pillars of any economy), and in this instance have a constant, guaranteed supply of consumers (prisoners). Such outsourcing through technology is already well known to the criminal justice system, e.g. electronic tagging. However, it was noted in 2013 that £70m could be saved if such technology was not outsourced to private firms and handed directly to police and probation officers. However, when privatising 'rehabilitation', combine those loses to private firms with the issues surrounding payment-by-results - that is, the 'results' aspect. Who will enforce that prisoners are not simply given 'busy-work' to gain certificates, so as to ensure the firm are able to receive their stipend from the government for putting 'x' number of prisoners through programmes? As two former American prisoners outline in this video.
3. Out with the old
Gove also stated that he wished to close down old, 'squalid' Victorian prisons in exchange for newly built institutions which were 'fit for purpose'. Surely, if we are using the economic argument - as those prisons are said to be cost-ineffective (heating; overcrowding) - it would be more appropriate to follow the research and review short sentences, so those prisons could be closed down for good by a massive reduction in the prison population? Gove said that first he needed to see 'a lot' more, and detailed, evidence that short sentences are ineffective. I am not sure how much more he needs. There are also still 4,612 prisoners whom remain in prison following the abolition of their IPP sentences (Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection) in 2012. Their release would mean an immediate loss of 5% in the prison population (based on 4,612 IPP prisoners of 85,000) and savings of £119 million.
By building new prisons you only naturalise their role in society, and there would need to be motivation to do so. Would they be privately operated or under the ownership of HMPS? If ran privately it appears a great headline for the government on the money made by selling the valuable land the old prisons vacated, and to not take on economic responsibility for new ones You will also encounter issues with plans to build new prisons whilst over one million people use food banks. Further populism will only be counter-productive to his efforts to encourage rehabilitation, and for us to 'find the treasure' in every prisoner's heart, as he remarked in an earlier speech.
4. Sentencing - did I hear him wrong?
When asked about the sheer size of our prison population he said he hoped it would 'fall over time' but also made the very clear statement that he would not intervene in the courts sentencing decisions. Two questions later he made a comment about the sentencing framework being somewhat ineffective. I found the latter to be more of a throwaway comment than the former which he stood firm on. His recognition and admittance of court sentencing being imperfect, however, is remarkable enough in and of itself.
5. Cause to celebrate?
I believe there is cause to celebrate, because Michael Gove is not Chris Grayling. He also does not shy away from the well-known and obvious issues surrounding prison reform. He will give a thirty-minute speech scarcely using the word 'prisoner', 'offender', or 'criminal', and in place will use 'person' and 'individual'. However: when he remarked that he believes the word "crisis" is being used too often, and he wouldn't use that word himself, to describe the state of our courts, prisons and probation service - given their current conditions with the: highest imprisonment rate in Europe, rat infestations, the death of staff, increasing suicides, violence, corruption, drug-use and the wastage of public money in privatization schemes (whom have claimed from the government payment for the tagging of offenders who are no longer alive, and have been paid £1.1 million to operate a prison which is no longer open) - I ask: what word would he use?
If we are not in crisis now, where is the motivation to act quickly and effectively? Aspects such as Grayling's changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) regime, for instance, need to be revised immediately. Particularly the spending of twenty-three hours in cells by prisoners because of the impact this has on violence and mental health issues (which need no exasperation). The cuts to staff levels and subsequent increase in working hours for remaining staff has impacted overall (mental) health, leading to a huge increase in sick days being taken leaving prisons chronically understaffed. Whilst Gove has made a U-turn on large-scale projects, and is saying all the right things, if he is truly committed to changing prisons in the UK, he must first adopt changes which establish the prisoner's, and staff's, safety and well-being so that any form of pronounced rehabilitation can begin.
To finalise this argument: if there is a real revolutionary zeal in Gove you would expect him to be concerned with tackling the more concrete pathways known to lead to prison, and the barriers people face upon re-entry: drug and alcohol misuse, mental health issues, children in care, housing, homelessness, and of course a lack of educational attainment and employment. This extends into the remit of probation whom deal with offenders post-release, of which we heard no mention. And whilst Gove has expressed an interest in social-care for early intervention, I wonder how he will navigate the fact that his government has directly deepened such issues?
I am wondering if Gove will 'return morality' to our criminal justice system, or if right now, this morality is largely aesthetic. For instance: in the case of body-worn cameras. It would be simpler, and cheaper, to decrease time spent incarcerated during the day to encourage less violence. Prisoners are already well adept at committing violence in hidden environments. And with the current prisoner to staff ratio, and prisoners able to simply attack from behind, it is not difficult to imagine how this is an expensive, and untried, solution.
There should, of course, be rehabilitation in prison, but I am sceptical of privatised rehabilitation when there are not wider changes being made to the prison environment - chiefly, to depopulate it. I am also sceptical because of the apparent economic parallels such privatisation has with the wider fiscal decisions being made by this government, and the economic motivations Gove's predecessor had at the heart of all his decisions.
We will discover more about Michael Gove's intentions on the November 25th following the spending review. However, for now, such scepticism noted above is just that - scepticism. If Gove is to deliver on all that he has outlined, he will be a fantastic replacement to Grayling. In the present, I just hope he sees the immediacy with which some issues need to be addressed.
Just hours after this post went live, was this article published.
https://twitter.com/RFord4 - Richard Ford's tweet
http://www.aei.org/events/can-prison-help-convicts-a-conversation-with-two-former-inmates-turned-prison-reformers/ - video