Gauke’s Prison Utopia: Will DWP-style Sanctions Get Us There?

Yesterday the great and the good of the criminal justice community and Home Affairs correspondents from every major news outlet gathered bright and early to hear what New Kid on the MoJ block, David Gauke had to say about his plans as Secretary as State. It only seems like a few months since we gathered to hear previous David’s (Lidington) vision of the same… (clue: that’s because it is). Whatever your opinion of the current incumbent, everyone agrees that even a passing nod to stability at the top of the Ministry of Justice would be useful in combating some of the worse conditions and highest rates of self-harm, suicide and violence ever seen in our prisons.

To recap, in 2017 there were: 295 deaths in custody, a record high of 42,837 self-harm incidents, a record high of 28,165 assaults (13% of which were serious) and almost 8,000 assaults on prison staff. Today the Prison Officer’s Association are threatening strike action, following a life-threatening assault on an officer in HMP Bedford at the weekend. This follows on from Chris Grayling’s tenure as Minister of Justice (2012-2015; he famously was the only minster who managed to implement the full cuts demanded of his department by George Osborne. Now over-crowding is rife. Spice and other NPS are rife, and the consequent violence that comes with that. Basic repairs are not carried out (cf: Carillion, who held many maintenance contracts for Victorian prisons). HMP Liverpool continues to fail with the ‘worst conditions inspectors have ever seen’ and HMP Nottingham was subject to an Urgent Notification from the Chief Inspector of prisons due to conditions there. Whichever way you cut it, our prisons are indisputably in crisis, as acknowledged by the Tory Chair of the Justice Select Committee Bob Neill, as early as 2015.

Gauke’s speech hinged on prison as a place of protection (of the public), punishment and rehabilitation; he wants prisons to be places of humanity, hope and aspiration – who can disagree with that? But one might hope that as Secretary of State he would utilise the significant, findings of recent reports – commissioned by his government – to create a route to the bright utopia he imagines, rather than harking back to his DWP days, saying “As Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, I saw how a mixture of positive incentives, support and sanctions can influence behaviour and help people change their lives for the better.” I’d say the verdict is still very much out on the benefit or otherwise of DWP style sanctions; we don’t need Gauke to be to prisons what Grayling is to transport.

Disappointingly his speech mentioned not the Farmer Review and its crucial findings re: reducing reoffending and family connections; he did not mention the watershed Lammy Review into ethnic disproportionality in the justice system; nor was the HMPPS commissioned, four year long, with 700 interviews, study by the Runnymede Trust considered suitable for inclusion in his thinking, policy-making or speech. These reports go to the heart of the structural difficulties and inequalities of our deeply broken system, with plenty of excellent game-changing recommendations but this morning Gauke, in his first speech in this role, opted for some rearranging of deck chairs on a notoriously doomed ship with a side order of scape-goating in the form of drugs and organised crime.

Drugs – especially spice, organised crime and the increasingly semi-permeable membrane between the prison wall and gangs outside, are clearly huge issues. But they are part of a complex jigsaw of issues – including staffing cuts, crumbling buildings, insufficient health provision, a lack of legal aid, overcrowding – to name but a few, which result in this perfect storm of prison meltdown in 2018. I applaud the better use of tech and more funding for intelligence announced this morning to halt the pernicious impact of drugs and organised crime, but to offer it as a panacea or silver bullet for the entrenched and complex issues facing our justice system is naïve at best and negligent at worse.

This is a tough role. With all my heart I wish Gauke to be good at this job and to abate the misery in our system. I join him in wishing to see “prisons that are safe: with orderly, purposeful and structured regimes, free from violence, intimidation and self-harm.” If he wants to achieve this, I implore him to read the key reports and talk to those us of who’ve worked in or been through the system to understand the root of the issues to create an evidence-based roadmap out of our costly (in every sense), present hell and into the sunny uplands he espouses. We owe it to our society, the people in prisons and the victims of crime, wherever they be and whoever they are.