Relative Values - RSA

Relative values

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  • Picture of Rachel O'Brien
    Rachel O'Brien
  • Criminal justice
  • Institutional reform
  • Prisons

Last week I had a conversation with Paul, one of the people I worked alongside for several years when he was in prison. Now working, he had a rare and enforced day off due to the icy conditions that engulfed most of the UK. We keep in touch about how life and work is going, the madness of the world in general and of the criminal justice system in particular.

We talk about ideas, debate developments (or lack thereof) in policy or practice and – too often – speculate on what the latest new Minister responsible for prisons and probation may bring. In other words, just like a handful of governors and officers, he is now part of my network of colleagues and friends. I suspect and hope that these are relationships will last a lifetime. Forged by joint endeavour, shared interests and an irritating, yet sustaining, self-righteous frustration that things are not as they should be or would be if only we were in charge.

 But if I was a prison officer I would be very unlikely to be able to maintain these networks. I may have worked with someone for months, even years, but tend only to find out how they are faring if and when they arrive back in custody (as they too often do). This cuts off officers from the motivating effects of good news and can prevent prisons from understanding at the institutional and granular level what may have helped or hindered someone, whether inside or on release. The process of rehabilitation is rarely, if ever, about a single moment (and is often stymied by restricted choices and resources). But people can sometimes pinpoint an event, and often a relationship – the birth of a child, that prison tutor, a conversation with an officer – that lit a spark.

 So much so obvious. But one of the frustrating things about the criminal justice system and the prison service in particular is that complexity and uncertainty – of multiple needs and risks, opaque commissioning, acres of rules and regulations – can easily obscure some common sense truths. The most obvious of these is the extent to which prisons succeed and fail on the strength or otherwise of the relationships, not just between the different levels and parts of the criminal justice system but also between different groups of individuals.

Let governors govern

The RSA’s Future Prison project argued that the highly top-down, centralised and bureaucratic nature of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) serves to undermine local leadership, collaboration and integration. Of course, a safe and secure system does need clear basic standards. As such, the new measures to ensure that Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons’ (HMIP) reports are acted upon and that the system learns from these are welcome. But accountability is shared and depends on governors having the tight resources (not all do) and capabilities to deliver. But, as the recent HMIP reports on both HMP Liverpool and HMP Nottingham show, some of the most significant problems had been raised by governors with their regional and national managers to no avail.

The risk is that reports like these are seen to provide evidence of the need for further top-down centralisation, rather than a shift in focus. Of course, central government also needs to articulate a clear and consistent vision for what it wants of our prison service (an enormous challenge in the context of having five different people in the post of Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State in three years).

In his speech at the RSA (a far more nuanced piece than some of the headlines), the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State, David Gauke reasserted the government’s commitment to rehabilitation alongside new measures to tackle organised crime and drugs and mobile phones being smuggled inside. Governors, he said, should be allowed to govern and many will welcome the commitment to overhaul the way in which incentives can be used to – as the Secretary of State put it – provide more opportunities for prisoners “to live in a more liberal environment with greater personal responsibility”.

But as the RSA’s report, A Matter of Conviction argued, the backdrop needs to change to one that allows for more devolved, place-based approaches. Despite some changes to the role that governors can play in relation to education, employment and health – many feel that their relationship with the MOJ is one which has not yet struck the right balance between autonomy and accountability. For example, as the Secretary of State acknowledged, governors need to be able to use release on temporary licence (ROTL) much more widely again. Done effectively this allows people – like Paul – to start working before they leave prison and to develop the relationships and networks to sustain this. Some prisons will be able and willing to do this now, others will have greater challenges at least in the short term; the point being that the people best placed to assess risk, forge relationships with employers and know their local markets will be at those working at that local level.

From 1st April the new structure of HMPPS will be implemented (with new Regional Group Directors typically overseeing four or five prisons). There are understandable concerns that this will result in the loss of some very good governors as they move further up the hierarchy. It is far from clear yet whether those governors left running prisons will experience this change as liberating or another layer of management. But we are where we are.

A critical question will be how these new roles are defined, what their purpose is and whether there are new skills needed not just to oversee the operational functioning of prisons but forge the relationships needed to create a more integrated approach across a local area. Some governors are already doing this; sitting on local criminal justice boards and working closely with probation services, Police and Crime Commissioners, health and substance misuse providers and others in their area. More must follow.

Some will, some won’t

Many conversations about prisons at some stage will turn the ‘some will, some won’t’ theme. Most of us seem to believe that prisons should do more to make rehabilitation possible: this helps the individual but is also beneficial to wider society be it their families or communities. And yes, we need to give more people access to meaningful activity and so on. But at some stage, so often, the conversation comes to similar punchlines: ‘but not everyone wants to change’; ‘you can only help those who want help themselves’; and so on.

This is true on some level but it misses the fact that we do not know who is who. And it is relationships – only possible with sufficient, skilled and empathetic staff – that can spot the difference and turn those sparks into flames. It misses the fact of who and what we change for and how much we have to lose.

Today also saw the launch of the RSA's Rebuilding Life After Prison podcasts (available on SoundCloud and Apple Podcasts); a short series of conversations about how some of these relationships – with family, employers, mentors and officers – have been shaped by prison and helped people rebuild their lives. Whatever algorithm you have, whatever technology you use, productivity in relation to prisons is hugely dependent on how one group of human beings interact with others. We need a service that enables these connections to flourish.


You can listen to the RSA Radio’s Rebuilding Life After Prison series on Soundcloud or via iTunes.

For more information on the RSA’s Future Prisons project visit the project page.


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  • The Ministry of Justice's recent decision to end Careers Service contracts in prisons is surely a crazily counterproductive move in a system that we're being told is supposed to be all about rehabilitation...?