The Government should establish a public inquiry into the perpetual state of crisis of the country’s jails, according to a much-respected former Chief Inspector of Prisons.
Giving evidence before Parliament’s Justice Committee yesterday, Professor Nick Hardwick said he had become “increasingly persuaded” of the view of the Prison Governors Association “for some kind of public examination of these issues, an inquiry”.
He told MPs: “The system has been bedeviled by changes in policy and because of the nature of prisons you need a long-term perspective which people of potentially different political persuasions can sign up to and we don’t have that. If you’re going to reconfigure the [prison] estate, for instance, you need to have some reasonable degree of confidence that you can stick with that for decades.”
He said the response of the prison service to constant policy changes presented a “danger to the system as a whole” and that a long-term consensus on our approach to prisons is necessary.
“You used to get it sometimes, when you went to a prison where there was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed governor and when you spoke to the experienced staff on the ground they would say ‘look, we’ll sit it out because he’ll be gone in 18 months and we can go back to doing things are we were’,” he added.
The professor of criminal justice at Royal Holloway, University of London, said he agreed with ministers’ current focus on ‘getting the basics right’, but that this should not be their only ambition.
While he said there was evidence of some improvements within the prison system, there was a “very long way to go and still some big risks”.
“Getting the basics right is laying the foundations, but they’re not an end in themselves, they are a means to an end,” Prof Hardwick said. “So, it’s correct to say we need to get those in place but then we shouldn’t abandon a longer-term vision of wider reform, greater focus on rehabilitation, looking at trying to make more decent and humane prisons.”
Prof Hardwick said relationships between prisoners and staff are key to effective rehabilitation.
“There isn’t a shortcut to that, you need enough experienced staff who are working consistently to create the relationships on which those other things depend,” he said. “And you need stability around policy so people can plan and be clear about what’s the strategy, what are the objectives, and they can get on and deliver that and it’s not changing every six months.”
The former Chair of the Parole Board said that there is a limit to the number of new staff that can be recruited at any one time, of the “capacity of the system to absorb new staff”, and that he believes the problems and consequences of the Prison Service not being able to retain staff is being brushed aside.
“Staff are leaving before they become fully effective… because of the working conditions, you get punched, why would you turn up to work with these levels of violence? That’s a big issue,” he said. “Secondly, you can earn more money in comparable and less stressful jobs close by so there’s a real reward factor. But I suspect it’s also about the support new staff get, whether the training is right. It’s not just about keeping new staff but also that experienced staff don’t leave before they need to either. The whole issue about retention hasn’t been given enough attention.”
He said the shortages also related to prison staff such as teachers, nurses and psychologists who are all “crucial to the overall stability of the prison” and that it would be a “mistake to focus solely on uniformed, operational staff”.
Prof Hardwick also warned how problems with staffing have enabled organised crime to flourish.
“I am quite sure that in some prisons, the lack of experienced staff has left a vacuum that organised crime has filled,” he told MPs. “If you want to have a profitable trade in drugs, you need some rules and structures by which that trade operates, there’s a lot of money at stake, people need to pay, you can’t go to the small claims court if they’re don’t. What’s certainly happened in some prisons is that an alternative structure has developed. Prisoners are running too much of what’s happening and, once that becomes established, that becomes very difficult to break down, much more difficult than stopping it arising in the first place.”