Crammed into a tiny and overheated room at the top of the Centre for Social Justice building, London, I stood with over a hundred suited and booted reporters, academics, and civil servants to listen to Secretary of State for Justice Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Truss speak about her views on sentencing and the prison system. The turn-out to hear the Minister’s speech was perhaps larger than anticipated, spilling over into two additional anterooms and out into the hall.
At first I thought the Justice Secretary looked a little unsure of the content of her own speech, reading from her papers, and stumbling over her words on occasion, in a way that did not inspire me to think that she really knew nor cared about the prison problem. But as she worked up to the meatier parts of the speech, she grew in confidence.
There were four core elements to what she had to say: firstly, sentences are too long. Secondly, prisons are “too overcrowded to work”. Thirdly, that the “wrong people” are in prison. And finally, that “the management of the prison population isn’t good enough”.
I certainly agreed with the first statement. In a four-year study of long-term imprisonment for young adults I have been working on with colleagues Dr Ben Crewe and Dr Susie Hulley from the Prisons Research Centre, University of Cambridge, we found that lengthy terms being handed down to under-25s for murder had massively increased over a short space of time. For instance, between 2003 and 2013, the average minimum life tariff across England and Wales increased from 12.5 years to 21.1 years. We argued that this suggested ‘a growing number of prisoners [are] serving sentences that were almost unheard of a generation ago’. Phi Wheatly, former Director General of the Prison Service, told us that he felt this was because the “currency” of prison time had shifted – that is, that the pains of shorter sentences had become devalued, and that sentence inflation meant that longer and longer in prison was felt to be required to achieve the same punishing effect it might have had ten or twenty years ago.
“It is not true that rates of imprisonment have gone up across the board”, Truss said, conveniently overlooking the impact of sentence inflation. Instead she focused primarily on the rise in long sentences as underpinned by the “wholly welcome” increase in prosecution of serious sexual offences. In fact, this issue took up a substantial proportion of the speech (which seemed to me – while important – to be dodging the issues at the crux of the matter), aimed at challenging the perception that the “wrong people” were in prison.
Baroness Chakrabarti, a Labour peer in the House of Lords, was closer to the mark, blaming the massive increase in the prison population over the last few decades on a political “arms race”, with each political party trying to outdo the other in being ‘tough on crime’. She argued that the doubling of the prison population during her lifetime did not reflect a doubling of “the sum of human wickedness” (perhaps unknowingly reflecting the doubling of the minimum tariff for murder highlighted above) to justify the ramping up of these sentences. And in fact, Chakrabarti stated that it was Labour’s ‘tough on crime’ mantra that contributed to the prison overcrowding crisis, and that this attitude needed to stop.
” She talked about creating “safe and sustainable” prisons, and yet without any real vision of what this might entail “
But there was, Truss stated, “no quick fix” – that to artificially reduce the prison population (places she acknowledged were “too violent”) by releasing individuals early would be “reckless and endanger the public”. Instead, she talked about creating “safe and sustainable” prisons, and yet without any real vision of what this might entail. Certainly one would hope that more Titan prisons, and the US-style ‘warehousing’ of people in prison does not feature in what little vision does exist. Again, her demonising portrayal of prisoners – describing rising prison rates as a prosecutorial success in “driving wickedness out from the shadows” and putting it “where it belongs, behind bars” – struck me less as meaningful reform speak and more as populist rhetoric.
Truss fielded questions from ITV News who challenged her argument that there was no quick fix for prison overcrowding, while a representative from the prisoner employment charity Tempus Novo highlighted the need for a commitment to such work within this new system. Her answer focused almost exclusively on the provision of apprenticeships – which, by the way, was not the question asked (typical of a politician to give the answer they have prepared, no matter what the question!). The tendency for politicians and policy-makers to equate ‘apprenticeships’ with ‘employment for prisoners’ always presents a problem to me, as it seems to cap the potential of every man and woman in our jails at the ‘vocational’ level. And while such work is important and can, of course, require a high skill set and a great deal of training, many of the individuals I have met in prison aspire to much more than this. There are great thinkers, entrepreneurs and business minds behind our prison walls – what ‘employment’ or training opportunities will exist for them in Truss’ vision of a reformed criminal justice system?
After a ridiculous time-wasting question by a reporter from The Sun, the C4 news correspondent challenged Truss on how she intended to make custody safer, offering a sober and important reality check for the room by highlighting the unacceptable (and rising) numbers of deaths in custody. Truss acknowledged that each death in prison was a “tragedy”, and that she intended to meet the families of those who had died. She also highlighted her vision that the provision of over 2,000 more prison officers would enable each officer to hold a caseload of six prisoners, whose focus would be supporting these individuals on an everyday basis, as well as during “times of crisis”.
As is often the case with ministerial speeches, words such as ‘reform’ and ‘rehabilitation’ were flung around with despairing abandon, and yet without ever really seeming to acknowledge that this doesn’t always mean the same thing to different people. It seemed to me to be used as a short-cut to say: “Change ‘bad’ individuals to cut reoffending”. But this misses several key points, as far as a criminologist might be concerned. Chief among these are: the failure to recognise that the environment from which an individual comes, the life they have lived and experiences (and traumas) they have had, and the environment they will return to post-release; and the disregard for what we might call the structural conditions of society (social inequality and exclusion, poverty, relative deprivation, unequal access of opportunities to high-paying jobs). That is, the Justice Secretary made no promises to try and reform the social conditions that might lead to offending, but instead relied on that old Tory trope of focusing on the need to change “criminals”.
And the uncritical, unthinking use of such language – referring to those in prison repeatedly as “criminals” and “offenders” – stigmatises and ‘others’ the incarcerated population, and contributes to fear and distancing rather than understanding and reintegration.
There also seemed to be some degree of disconnect between what the Justice Secretary was saying, and what is currently happening in the prison system. “As I have said before”, she said, “a prisoner’s family is the most effective resettlement agency”. And while I agree with the Minister that families represent an important aspect of the desistance process (i.e. the process by which people move away from offending), they are but one piece of the puzzle. Surely it is unfair to place this degree of responsibility on the family unit?
I am currently working as part of a university-prison ‘Learning Together’ partnership between HMYOI Feltham and Royal Holloway, University of London, and have found a massive dearth in higher-education opportunities for the men in YOIs. The young men we are working with are incredibly engaged, focused, and committed to their studies, and they are an absolute credit to themselves. And they are both aspirational and desperate for more HE courses, in a place where the Government dictates a focus on ‘functional skills’ that are way below the capacity of these students.
And having seen the Secretary for State speak at an event designed to celebrate Learning Together university-prison partnerships (where universities take their students in to study with students in the prison), I had to wonder whether she suffered from amnesia regarding this particular event, as she described “education and skills” for prisoners in her speech today simply as a functional means to a vocational end, and only what they “need to get a job on the outside”.
So what if, instead of pretending we can “make prisons work better”, the Ministry of Justice looked at making social justice work better. If instead of always focusing on reducing reoffending, we focused on increasing aspirations and opportunities. And if instead of shifting governmental responsibility for the ‘prison crisis’ onto individual prison governors – in the guise of “autonomy” – the Ministry of Justice were to work towards an inclusive agenda that recognised that a “quick fix” (or any ‘fix’ at all) will continue to elude us if we seem to hold on to the ghost of the notion that ‘prison works’.