Give me a good documentary on the US criminal justice system and I’m settled in for the night in front of the TV. After watching one particular episode of ‘Life on Death Row’ (BBC Three) I went to bed sobbing for the mother who fought – in vain – to save her son from the lethal injection, and the wife who had watched her husband die from a fatal gun wound.
This isn’t a penal voyeurism, but a despairing fascination with the American judicial process, especially its willingness to convict men and women – and mere boys and girls – on the back of highly circumstantial evidence. The huge Netflix hit ‘Making a Murderer’ had it all: circumstantial evidence, planted evidence and no real evidence. From my sofa, I console myself that it couldn’t happen in the UK (could it?) where we do not have our equivalent of a death row.
Recently, the UK government has been under pressure to do more to advocate against the use of the death penalty. I’m in the USA at the moment, where only days ago the state of Arkansas enacted the country’s first double execution since 2000. Overall, however, there is an encouraging downwards trend in instances of capital punishment globally (with a notable question mark against China, where the data remains a mystery).
Whilst we could be doing more to campaign on the issue, there is continued pressure in the UK to reform our justice system, particularly our prisons. Yesterday the Ministry of Justice announced a 38% rise in assaults on prison staff in England and Wales, and a 24% rise in self-harm incidents in the past year. Prison suicides are also up significantly, fuelled in part by drug use inside. Several documentaries have exposed the extent of the problem, including a BBC Panorama special, ‘Behind Bars: Prison Undercover’ in February, where – importantly – the cameras were invited in by the governor.
Despite all this, there has been some movement. In February the Government set out plans for a Prison and Courts Bill, with some of the proposals echoing recommendations in the RSA’s A Matter of Conviction report, including: a statutory duty on prisons to reform people while they are in prison, increased powers for the inspectorate, and some additional freedoms for prison governors. The RSA remains committed to this kind of approach and is helping to establish a New Futures Network to drive it forward.
Since the Brexit vote we have seen a change of government, a change of minister and now an early election, curtailing the Parliamentary timetable and the shelving of the Prison and Courts Bill. The question that now arises is whether the next government – particularly if it secures a solid majority – will maintain the momentum on prison reform that Liz Truss has started and if so, whether there is an opportunity to think more radically about justice reform?
Health, education and social care have struggled to be covered in the debate so far. As we wait for for campaigns to ‘start properly’ once Parliament is in recess, prison reform should continue to be given the attention it deserves.
Rachel O’Brien reflects on the call for a focus on rehabilitation by the new Secretary of State for Justice as RSA Radio launches their Rebuilding Life After Prison podcast series