Will Heaven

Our violent and squalid prisons need a dose of Victorian reform

Our violent and squalid prisons need a dose of Victorian reform
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This morning the new Justice Secretary, David Gauke, delivered one of those keynote speeches about prisons. You know the sort: half an hour in front of a crowd of 'stakeholders' at a convenient London location. It's increasingly hard to take such occasions seriously. Not only are we on the sixth justice secretary since 2010 – meaning it will be a miracle if Gauke is in post in 12 or 18 months' time – but it's only 78 days since the last newly appointed one, David Lidington, gave his own keynote speech about prison reform. When ministers are sentenced to a spell at the Ministry of Justice, they know they’ll be out before long. To the department’s civil servants, the phrase ‘a here-today, gone-tomorrow politician’ is not an insult but a bland statement of fact.

Overall, Gauke was disappointing. There were a few very strong passages in the speech – notably on the impact of ‘spice’ and other drugs on prisoners which, he said, now arrive ‘Deliveroo-style’ to their cells. When it comes to drone delivery at scale, it seems Britain’s inmates have left the likes of Amazon trailing in their wake. He also told of a video of ‘two naked prisoners [on Spice] believing they are dogs, with makeshift muzzles and leads around their neck, barking at and fighting each other, goaded on by other prisoners’. This is the kind of story, nasty as it is, that gives a true picture of the disorder in prisons today.

But there was little sense of urgency over how to end it. And no bold vision of what a 21st century prisons system should look like. Gauke’s announcements seemed to amount to: some Skype sessions for prisoners who behave well, a new government-wide task force to deal with reoffending, and a new unit and technology to combat organised crime behind bars.

Which is all very well, but it’s tinkering at best with a system that needs a radical overhaul not seen since the 19th century – something that has been better grasped by Gauke's predecessors. When Michael Gove was justice secretary – for disclosure, I briefly served as his speechwriter – he rightly described the prisons estate as ‘out-of-date, overcrowded and in far too many cases, insanitary and inadequate’. Today, Gauke merely acknowledged that some prisons ‘have, frankly, fallen below the standards that we expect’.

That is quite an understatement. A couple of years ago an inmate at Wandsworth asked Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons if he might help him get hold of a broom ‘to kill all these rats’. Things have not much improved, even if Liz Truss did secure a funding boost from the Treasury during her stint as justice secretary. At HMP Liverpool, inspectors recently discovered the worst conditions ever seen in a British jail. As the Daily Mail put it, ‘Inspectors were appalled by the ‘squalid’ living standards at the prison, which was rife with rats, cockroaches, dirt, drugs and violence.’ Here, among the filth, fights and frequent suicides – and often locked in their cells for 22 hours or more a day – prisoners are supposed to be transformed from criminals into law-abiding citizens. It’s not going to happen.

Gove used to quote Winston Churchill, who as Liberal home secretary before the First World War became a giant of reform. He argued that there should be

a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man.

There was a similar Christian ethos underlying the Gove mission. Unabashedly he used to talk of the exhortation in St Matthew’s Gospel to help the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned, praising those who visited inmates and volunteered with them. Prison governors, and many working for prison reform charities, found themselves unexpectedly delighted to have him as justice secretary.

What a shame he didn’t get longer in post. The prison estate needs a dose of Victorian-style reform. From the sounds of things, the Government would prefer it we all carried on looking the other way.