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Prime ministers tend not to make big speeches about prisons; historically there has not been much political capital to be had out of this issue.

So it is significant that it was David Cameron who recently announced the government’s drive to boost rehabilitation and to reduce the number of people returning to prison after having served short sentences. Much has been said since about the politics behind this. Less about the content and what is driving change.

The clues were there: in his last party conference speech the prime minister identified the prison system as one of the stand out areas of public services that warrant serious reform if we are to create a ‘smarter state’. Meanwhile, Michael Gove has fast emerged as a radical and reforming Minister of Justice; his proposals to create ‘Reform Prisons’ where governors have autonomy over how they run their establishments have much to learn from what has – and has not – worked in relation to school academies.

This is courageous stuff: prison policy characterised by a polarised debate around ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ approaches, rather than what is effective. Yet, over a thousand people leave prison each week, around half of whom will re-offend within a year (rising to 60% for those who have served short sentences). This costs the taxpayer an estimated £13bn a year. In mid-February, the prison population stood at 85,679 (more than double what it was 1993); without reform – critically dependent on reducing the number of people who return to prison again and again – the Ministry of Justice forecasts that this figure could rise to 100,000 by 2020. It is high time to ask searching questions about what it is we want prisons and taxpayers’ money to achieve.

In doing so, the narrative of our political leaders matters a lot. Gove and Cameron both understand that it is not just policy that needs to change; their words will set the tone of debate, rattling through the justice system, influencing the everyday decisions of governors and courts and, of course, public opinion.

But leadership also matters locally. Currently prison governors have a strange kind of power. Still referred to as ‘No 1’ in many prisons, they operate within highly hierarchical institutions. At the same time, many fundamental decisions, and in particular how they spend their budget, are made centrally. A good governor will be visionary, outward facing; focusing not just on the relationships between staff and prisoners but also that between the establishment and the wider community. He or she will embrace innovation that can be shown to support rehabilitation. Currently, the good governor does this with one hand tied behind their back with few incentives to operate in this way. They have to depend on weak or patchy evidence to set direction and fully expecting to move, or be moved, within two years.

David Cameron spoke about a shift in approach to one that sees those in custody as potential assets, not liabilities. This is welcome; anyone spending time in prisons quickly sees the untapped potential of those inside and how critical learning and employment can be. They will also, in the main, walk away depressed and frustrated by the barriers to progression, the irrelevance and poor quality of much of what is on offer and governors’ limited power to shape this.

It makes sense to give governors the autonomy to decide how best not just to unleash the potential within the people in their care but those that lie within their workforce, local community and economy; enabling them flex to changing local circumstances, rather than constantly responding to edicts from Westminster. But greater autonomy does not inherently mean better quality. Just as with headteachers, some governors are excellent and some are poor. Not all will be able to or want to adapt to this new world. The challenge is to define what kinds of leadership, skills and governance models will be required. So what could a more autonomous and devolved prison look like?

Well it is unlikely to look the same in London as it does in Liverpool. But both should be clearly, unrelentingly, focused on rehabilitation. Not because this is warm and fuzzy but because this is what will reduce crime, increase public safety and bring down the costs of reoffending.

This core purpose is also needed to drive a more localist agenda. Crime is local in its impact and nature and rehabilitation is inherently social. Prisons’ success or failure in this respect is dependent on a wide range of goods and services both within their walls and in the community. However well we do to enhance the self-efficacy, determination and qualifications needed to work, if no one is prepared to employ ex-offenders then we will fail. Likewise, providing in-custody interventions around drug and alcohol misuse is quickly undermined if we return people to the same hostel alongside people still using. Rehabilitation both requires and drives local buy in.

Currently, too many local authorities still see adult prisons as the punitive end of a process that happens ‘over there’, as institutions that can help people to make a new start and support councils to deliver their priorities. Yet, effective rehabilitation does not just reduce reoffending but also unemployment, dependence on welfare and wider impacts on families and neighbourhoods. Alongside other local players, councils have the capacity to make a difference but have no immediate financial incentive, structure or power to do so. If prisons numbers go down, savings benefit the centre.

Learning the lessons from academies, including defining the role of a middle tier structure between the national and the local, suggests radically new forms of governance and a reconfiguration and reskilling of the workforce, including governors. This could include not-for-profit models run by a local trusts, able to develop social enterprises and reinvest locally. Trust boards could comprise of those who have a role to play on both sides of wall; not just the justice services we are familiar with but also sentencers, those who provide statutory and voluntary transitional services in the community, local colleges, businesses and employers. Crucially, it would bring together the new community rehabilitation companies and custodial places under one roof.

Such an approach would allow for governors’ work to dovetail with broader local strategies that invest upstream in prevention and reduce the cost of crime. The holy grail – with all local authority budgets under pressure – would be the potential to pool budgets and jointly procure – local – goods and services and to be more flexible at the end of the sentence between custody and community. Such an approach could sit within current moves towards creating combined authorities and creation of new city-regional mayors post-2017. The key would be for this agenda to be seen as a priority, as some Police and Crime Commissioners have begun to do.

These questions and more will be addressed in the coming months and years. Mistakes will be made. Prison policy has for too long been residing in what the former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, has called the ‘too difficult box’; where long-term intractable problems are set aside by politicians or Whitehall, predicting defeat in the context of our adversarial and short-term political culture.

The government is taking this head on. The test will be, as these potentially transformational policy changes take their course, whether the current progressive and pragmatic narrative can be sustained to allow for a more sustained, cross-party, pragmatic and evidence-based approach.

So could success look like? In years from now, the test will not only be whether we have less people in prison but that future prime ministers will have taken to speaking about prison policy more loudly and proudly. Success will mean governors being seen to be, as many school heads are, civic leaders in their communities. It will mean that the new prison league tables announced by the prime minister have been used to drive rehabilitation and strengthen public confidence, and that working in a prison will be a skilled vocation that people – including teachers – seek out.  

Find out more about the RSA's new project Future Prison


Rachel O’Brien has led RSA’s work on prisons since 2007 and is now a Director of Transitions Spaces, a new community interest company that seeks to strengthen rehabilitation in and around prisons.


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