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Time for a permanent solution in our prisons
The Government wants to lock more people up for longer, but this will not make the public safer – in fact, given the dire state of our prisons and the fact that almost all prisoners are eventually released, it is more likely to put the public at extra risk.
The key to properly protecting the public is breaking the cycle of reoffending – estimated to cost almost £20 billion a year – and that means real rehabilitation inside prisons as well as on release. Instead of spending £4bn on a new generation of prisons, the Government should invest in the prisons we already have and prioritise making them safe, decent, secure and fit for purpose.
The Government has laid out its “law and order” agenda with its mammoth Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but there is nothing at all in this Bill that even attempts to tackle the scourge of prison violence. As well as being a wasted opportunity, this just puts the public at greater risk.
The new Bill has been described by Ministers many times as an “endto- end” Criminal Justice Bill – but unfortunately they are responsible for leaving a gaping hole in the middle. This Bill has plenty to say about sentencing and release but next to nothing on what happens in between – incarceration – apart from an overarching ambition to lock more people up for longer.
We are told that this Bill is about protecting the public – but there is a huge contradiction here. Locking more people up for longer in squalid, overcrowded and dangerous prisons does not protect the public, it actually puts them at greater risk, because almost all prisoners are eventually released. The question is, what condition do we want offenders released in?
The key to breaking the cycle of offending is rehabilitation – and this must start in prison. The POA agrees with probation union Napo that longer periods in custody currently do not aid in the rehabilitation of prisoners. It seems as if the Government has given up on rehabilitation within prisons completely, because it is well known that this is impossible in a violent, dangerous environment.
Assaults on prisoners and staff have soared since Coalition cuts from 2010 which triggered a terrible vicious cycle of violence. Staff cuts led to more violence, led to more staff leaving, leading to more violence – and so on. Without fixing that, and without fixing our broken Criminal Justice System more widely, Ministers will not be able to cut crime or keep the public safe. When they say that is what they’re doing, they are simply trying to pull the wool over our eyes. A root and branch review needs to be conducted, not headlines to satisfy certain media outlets.
FIXING THE CRISIS
How do you fix the crisis in our justice system and prisons? You start by treating it as a national emergency because that is exactly what this is. You listen to the experts such as the POA, and others such as the Pay Review Body who recommended a £3,000 pay rise last year for frontline prison officers – both because it is fair and because it is a simple way to stem the hemorrhaging of experience and talent from our Prison Service. Justice workers in particular are looking to Government to lead and to have a justice system and Prison Service that everyone can be proud of, and one which is fair and equitable. We need to take some of the estimated £20 billion lost to reoffending each year and invest it in breaking the cycle of criminality. Building new prisons is not the answer and never has been. We should be investing money to keep people out of the criminal justice system in the first place. Investing in decent housing, decent jobs, keeping young people away from a life of crime, breaking the cycle of knife crime, the damage that drugs do to our community and dealing robustly with organised crime gangs is vital, and repairing our damaged Prison Service is a key part of that as well. Our prisons are overcrowded and that needs to be addressed. How is it possible to have decent reoffending programmes when our jails are so overcrowded?
REVIEW AFTER REVIEW
Having been around the Prison Service for over 30 years, I have seen lots of different legislative frameworks, costly review after review that simply does not deal with the fundamental issues. Lots of these reviews just regurgitate what we already know, but they gather dust and the recommendations are never implemented. Look at the Lord Woolf report after the Manchester riot. Hardly any lessons learned but that report is as relevant now as it was then and yet after both Labour and Conservative Governments it is arguable we are no further forward with costs soaring. Chief Inspectors’ reports ignored year after year because of funding issues yet the answer appears just to build more prisons.
As stated, the Criminal Justice System needs to be looked at as a national emergency and a cross-party solution needs to be found based on evidence. It is no use just locking people up as that is just storing a problem away from society. We need expert input from professional groups in the Criminal Justice System, including trade union input as the POA and other recognised unions in the Justice System have a wealth of experience and knowledge on what works. But more importantly, politicians of all parties need to stop playing to the gallery about who can be the toughest on crime. At the time of the Strangeways riot, we were talking about prison overcrowding and the population of the Prison Service in England and Wales was approximately 40,000 .In 2021, it is double that. That ultimately says to me that Governments of all persuasions have failed the general public and it is now time to reflect on that and put systems in place that make our communities safer, reduce crime in society and reduce reoffending so that our prison system stops being a revolving door. The POA stand ready to help any Government in establishing a think tank that is meaningful. The talking needs to stop and strategies need to be put into place for future generations to steer them away from a life of crime.
Representing over 30,000 Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers, the POA is the largest UK Union in this sector, able to trace its roots back more than 100 years.