Tiny Phones and Big Problems

by George McBride

The word ‘crisis’ is overused when it comes to prisons. But there can be no doubt that both prisons and probation are in the sorriest state we have seen in several decades.

In 2016, the Chief Inspector of Prisons used his annual report to describe a system where “too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places”. In 2017, he found that the situation “has not improved – in fact, it has become worse”. Meanwhile reforms to the probation system have been filleted by the Chief Inspector of Probation in her first annual report. Probation may not garner the same attention as the prisons, yet the service is crucial to the delivery of a proportionate and humane justice system. Unfortunately, the Chief Inspector found that a “two-tier and fragmented service” faces “deep-rooted problems”. In a shocking indictment of the time and money wasted on reorganising the service, “none of the government’s stated aspirations” for its part-privatisation of probation “have been met in any meaningful way”.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. We were meant to see a “rehabilitation revolution”, kickstarted by the Coalition government and continued by a majority Conservative government from 2015 onwards. It would be easy to point the finger of blame. Over-hasty cuts to staff and resources in both services have left them on their knees. Insufficient attention has been paid to better managing demand on these services – particularly the overcrowded prisons. Five Justice Secretaries in only five years has really not helped.

More pressing than raking over the coals of past mistakes is to ask what the latest incumbent in the hot seat at the Ministry of Justice will do to get his department out of this mess. And that is what much of the penal reform sector gathered to hear yesterday morning when David Lidington spoke at the thinktank Reform.

The early signs were not encouraging. Given the scale of the problems in the criminal justice system, leaking lines beforehand about miniature mobile phones felt, well…Lilliputian. To make matters worse, the Justice Secretary was not announcing an actual ban on the pesky phones – because that is beyond his remit – but rather, calling on retailers to take action themselves. For those awaiting a vision statement on transformational change, expectations were suddenly in short supply.

In the speech itself, the emphasis on security was prominently placed and in many ways came across as nothing new. As the prisons have become less and less safe, and the use of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) has ballooned, ministers over several years now have had far more to say about how they propose to apprehend and punish people than how they propose to tackle the underlying causes of the drugs and violence. The government mantra of “drugs and drones and mobile phones” – try singing it to yourself to the tune of a certain song by Ian Dury and the Blockheads  – has become a cliché within the sector.

Still, I believe David Lidington is an intelligent man and I suspect he knows that an overweening emphasis on security measures risks ministers sitting, Canute-like, against an unstoppable tide. You can apprehend as many people as you like but they are only going back to one place…the prisons themselves. The money that can be made and the sheer desperation of people trapped in the prison system will ensure that drugs alone will continue to be an ever-present part of the landscape. If the government wants to get serious about tackling the crisis in drugs and violence, then it has to look at the wider picture. As VolteFace argued in their report High Stakes, real change requires a serious effort to offer positive and busy prison regimes. That is not going to happen without more investment and without a concerted attempt to reduce the population behind bars.

In that, the Justice Secretary certainly provided some helpful mood music. The “deprivation of liberty…constitutes the punishment” he said, pushing back against those who think terrible prison conditions are just desserts for people who commit crimes. David Lidington signalled again that he would like to see prison numbers “come down from their current record levels”. He echoed some of the messages of the Howard League’s 3Rs campaign, by talking about increasing the use of release on temporary licence (ROTL) and of home detention curfew (HDC). He talked rightly about solutions which lie outside of the criminal justice system and cited efforts at engaging Cabinet colleagues on how the wider work of government can help people turn their lives around. Prisons can be, as he said, “magnifying glasses for wider problems and inequalities in society”.

The problems in prison are magnified indeed. Probation, meanwhile – potentially key to helping solve these problems – failed to get a single mention by the Secretary of State. These two systems need bolder and more direct action than is currently being outlined. I mentioned the Lilliputians earlier. In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the miniature people of Lilliput – there is no mention of whether they use equally miniature mobile phones – find the shipwrecked traveller asleep on their beach. Gulliver wakens to find himself tied down by a multitude of pegs and several “slender ligatures across my body, from my arm-pits to my thighs”.

I cannot help but think of the Secretary of State himself. We need David Lidington to cast aside these bonds and do something rather more radical. Otherwise, we will be hearing the same speech about the same dreadful conditions, or worse, from his successor soon enough. Given where we are now, that truly would be criminal.

Andrew Neilson is Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform

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