The new Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has said in the past that he wants prison to be ‘unpleasant.’ To that extent he should be pleasantly surprised. Our prisons are indeed engines of despair, indolence, violence and incivility. Our Prison and Probation Service, notoriously allergic to transparency and accountability, has been able to camouflage this to some extent during the pandemic. It’s harder for prisoners to be unpleasant when they’re locked down in a space hardly bigger than a disabled toilet for 23 hours a day.
In the meantime, the department Raab has now inherited – with an ever-growing army of HQ bureaucrats – has not been idle. The prison service has been producing reams of specious drivel on intersectionality, unconscious bias and all manner of fashionable happy-clappy while the front line bleeds. The Director General of prisons recently sent to staff a photograph of him taking the knee outside HMP Durham – where at the last inspection nearly a third of prisoners reported being unsafe and a third were hooked on drugs.
During this time, the brute reality of prison life has not been slowed by progressive rhetoric. Inquests on two terrorists revealed a catalogue of blunders and jaw dropping naivete inside our High Security prisons that led to murder and mayhem on our streets. A privately run juvenile prison was deemed so badly run and dangerous it had to be closed. A local prison was described as so violent and unsafe with staff so demoralised that inspectors invoked a little used urgent warning to the Justice Secretary. And the prison service has produced policies that mean biologically male sex offenders who declare they have transitioned have been housed with female prisoners who have endured sexual abuse.
But is there any connection between the prison service’s current fixation on fashionable orthodoxies and what happens on the front line? Mr Raab will need to make up his own mind. He will certainly be briefed by his new officials that a large operational service with over 50,000 staff needs to be up to date with efforts to promote diversity and inclusivity in the workplace and, to the extent it is possible, with prisoners.
There are lots of good questions for Raab to ask to test whether this operational service is focused on the right priorities . Why is an organisation that asks its staff to call convicted prisoners ‘residents’ content to hold them in places the RSPCA would close down if they housed livestock? How does a ‘rehabilitation culture’ actually work in prisons controlled by illicit drugs cartels where harried and battered staff are reduced to helpless onlookers? Is housing male bodied sex offenders in female prisons on the basis of self-declared ID helping the safety of abused women prisoners and public confidence? Is it right that the head of the prison and probation service should double the job with being the second permanent secretary at the justice department?
The truth is that the prison and probation service abandoned all pretentions of being a law enforcement agency with public protection at its heart years ago. This wouldn’t matter so much if the career-building virtue signalling was accompanied by progress in helping prisoners and stopping more victims in future. But we have the worst recidivism rates in western Europe. Rates of violent assault, suicide and self-harm are off the scale. Frontline uniformed staff are leaving in droves for safer, better paid jobs in the Border Force and Police before their probation is finished.
A change in culture is need — fewer suits and more boots on the landings to drive safety as a total priority. The situation demands radial and drastic action.
There are very good people working at the centre who despair as much as I do about what Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has become. They speak to me because to speak out publicly would be career ending. Before Mr Raab is mesmerised by the learned helplessness of his new officials he must act to defeat a culture that puts more stock in pronouns than clean sheets. The fish rots from the head.