prison reform - RSA

The Prisons and Courts Bill creates a duty for prisons to reform


  • Picture of Rachel O'Brien
    Rachel O'Brien
  • Picture of Jack Robson
    Senior Business Development and Partnerships Manager
  • Prisons

In October last year, the RSA’s Future Prison Project stated that prisons’ ability to change people’s lives and keep prisoners, staff and communities safe has been undermined by short-term, reactive decision-making and over centralisation. We argued that tackling this would require political courage and a shared clear purpose to all those working and living in and around prisons.

Saying anything positive about prison reform may seem to run counter to what most of us read and watch every day; we face constant reminders of the risks facing many of the people who live and work inside our prisons. Despite these very real challenges, the Prisons and Courts Bill does signify a historical shift in thinking about the purpose of prisons and how they are run.

The RSA has long argued that putting a commitment to rehabilitation at the core of our prison system – on top of tackling over population and under resourcing – is the best way to tackle risk, reduce reoffending and protect community safety.  By including a statutory duty in the Bill, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Liz Truss, has accepted the need for a fundamental shift in thinking about what prisons are for. While the precise impact of this will not be known for some time, as we have argued, such a focus should drive progress from how governors run their establishments, to how staff are trained and – ultimately – whether prisons become places where people can progress.

However stark things are, the new duty, alongside greater freedoms for governors and a stronger role for the prisons inspectorate and ombudsman should be welcomed. The latter raises an interesting question; if the Secretary of State now has a statutory duty to support rehabilitation, with the prisons inspectorate charged with assessing this, then surely there is a logical and ethical argument for Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons to be appointed independently?

In the short term, the service is not just struggling to recruit new staff but also to retain existing officers. The current acute pressures facing many of those working and living in prisons will not change overnight; this is a problem that has been years in the making and some responsibility lies with all political parties for this. The reforms set out in the Bill and the wider changes being made that do not require statutory provision, could be quickly undermined should the worst happen in the coming weeks and months. However tempting it is for opposition parties to focus entirely on what has not been done – sentencing reform and population reduction, being the most obvious – they would be advised to look to their own history and support the longer term changes that are so desperately needed.  

The challenge for the Ministry of Justice and the new restructured NOMS (Her Majesty’s Prisons and Probation Service) will be to balance the need for frontline staff now, with a clearer idea about who these should be, how they should be supported and what they are charged with doing in this landscape. Together they will need to ensure that they enable prison governors to lead the way. This means striking the right balance between freedom and accountability, the right resources, structures and capabilities needed inside to create environments that support rehabilitation. Critically, this needs to be supported by an integrated approach when people are released. Tackling the current problems facing probation services, in particular, community rehabilitation companies will be critical to this.

Ultimately, rehabilitation is not a process; it is something that can or cannot emerge through providing people with the environments, opportunities and support to change.

With this in mind the RSA is helping to design and develop the New Futures Network. In the long term this aims to be a practical resource for prison leaders as they adapt to this new landscape. Rather than being a provider of services, or representing any particular group, the primary objective of the Network will be to help prisons and their partners to secure better rehabilitative outcomes for prisoners and their communities by:

  • Acting as an informed and honest broker between prisons and all potential partners, local and national, in the private, public and voluntary sector;
  • Driving new approaches to prison leadership and innovation;
  • Providing a bridge between practice development and policy; 
  • Improving the mechanisms for sharing evidence, experience and success across justice services.


If you would like to contribute your thoughts to the early stages of the New Futures Network you can do so by taking this short survey.

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