Reforming zeal

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reformingzealThe Queen’s Speech saw the government announce a major shake-up of the prison system. DDN hears from a former governor about what sort of impact the measures might have

The government’s sweeping prison reforms announced last month include plans to establish six new-style establishments that will give governors unprecedented freedom over finances, regimes, education and more (see news, page 5). One will be the huge HMP Wandsworth in south west London, and the government says that more than 5,000 prisoners will be housed in these ‘reform prisons’ by the end of the year.

The degree of autonomy being talked about is substantial, so is this genuinely radical? ‘I think it is,’ says international criminal justice consultant and former governor of Belmarsh and Brixton jails, John Podmore (DDN, May 2012, page 8). ‘It’s the biggest reform since Victorian times, which is a fairly low bar – but there is a lot of negativity around.’

Much of this comes down to numbers, he says – a sense that nothing can be done unless the prison population is reduced. ‘I don’t agree with that. It’s broken and we need to fix it, and we need to fix it now.’ Prisoners may get education, training or drug and alcohol treatment, he says, or they may not. ‘People are getting to their first parole review having not done much and had not much asked of them, by staff who don’t really know them. If we had a more efficient prison system that would help get the population down, but there are a lot of people saying nothing can happen until we get the numbers down. I think that’s entirely wrong.’

That leads to the obvious question of how things could be done differently. ‘I would applaud [Michael] Gove because he’s saying to governors, “dare to be different”. There’s a lot that a prison governor can do with the shackles taken off.’ How many will be up for it though? ‘I suspect that some will be, some won’t be sure, and some might start looking at early retirement. I can’t imagine everybody is champing at the bit, but overall I’m optimistic.’

He’s currently involved in a major project for RSA, The future prison, which looks at how a model could be designed to ensure ‘lasting social reintegration’ for ex-offenders. ‘So you might have a not-for-profit prison, or a prison run by a drug and alcohol services charity rather than G4S,’ he says.

It’s a blueprint not just for what a prison might look like, but how it relates to the local community, he explains. ‘I think they should be accountable. Many in the drug and alcohol field have difficulties working in prisons because people who aren’t prison officers are potentially seen as outsiders, but anybody working in prisons should have the same goal.’

There are skills in the drug and alcohol field that are a perfect fit, he believes, with no reason why well-qualified providers couldn’t become more involved in the overall responsibility and accountability of an establishment. ‘Is there a real difference between residential rehab and a lot of prison environments? I’d love to see a much more inclusive approach to the drug and alcohol sector, rather than “bid for a contract, get a contract, contract changes”. It’s very commercial and mechanical at the moment, and it should be much more subtle.’

When it comes to substances in prisons, it’s rare that a week goes by without another story about the devastating impact of NPS, but the issue is more complex than many of these would have you believe, he says. ‘It’s been like watching a slow car crash, the problems in the prison service – they go a long way back, and then along come NPS. In terms of how you stop drugs getting into prison, my basic premise has always been that you make prisoners not want them. That’s the only time they’ll stop.

‘Everyone talks about what to do, and it’s more dogs – and they’re as much use as a chocolate fireguard – and searches and so on, but let’s look at treatment,’ he continues. ‘I know it’s difficult to treat for NPS, and I know people take them in prison and not on the outside – it’s complicated. But if it’s a big problem in a particular prison then talk to your provider and look at your treatment modalities – maybe you need to do something different. What we don’t do is try to assess prisoner needs. We do all the testing and assessments, but we don’t tailor the services to those assessments.’

The idea that problems are ‘all down to NPS and overcrowding and that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in’ is naïve, he states. ‘It’s looking for a quick fix, and there is no quick fix in this.’

What’s needed instead is to go back to basic principles, he says. ‘A prison operates on staff/prisoner relationships, whether you like it or not. How do you foster those relationships? You need staff who are reasonably well motivated, well paid, well trained, well led, and you need a prisoner group that has some investment in what’s going on. People in prison with drug and alcohol problems, the vast majority want help, and they also want work, education, training. They don’t want to sit watching daytime TV and taking NPS. It’s not that difficult to motivate people in prison to get involved in things. Prison reform isn’t just about whinging from the sidelines about how bad it is, we’ve got to crack on and do something.’

Future prison project at www.thersa.org/action-and-research/rsa-projects/public-services-and-communities-folder/future-prison