Prison reform must be high on the agenda for new Justice Secretary.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, with his unerring sense of a good soundbite, recently described some of our prisons as a “stain on society” and warned that locking people away in squalor shows contempt for prisoners’ dignity and undermines their chances of reforming their lives. This is strong, but not surprising stuff, the timing of which was quite opportune.

In February this year, this column welcomed, unequivocally, the announcement from the Prime Minister, then David Cameron, of a whole tranche of prison reforms that would bring about a paradigm shift in the way our nation treats offenders, their families and those who are responsible for their care and rehabilitation. The announcement acknowledged that after many years of a lock them up and throw away the key approach, of a short sharp shock philosophy and of a system that crowds prisoners in to overflowing, overcrowded, filthy and inadequate prisons, we saw the first signs of a major reform driven by the then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove.

It was accepted that reoffending rates and returns to custody are far too high, in part because inmates in our Victorian prisons lack opportunities for rehabilitation, for training and for the development of the very social skills that are a prerequisite of a successful reintegration with society.

Cameron and Gove committed that the Government would offer prisoners “chances to change; for those trying hard to turn themselves around, we should offer hope; in a compassionate country, we should help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path”.

But, the old adage seems to have applied: do tell God your plans for the future, they’re sure to make him laugh! Within months, the European referendum and its political aftershocks saw David Cameron resign as Prime Minister and Michael Gove returned unceremoniously to the backbenches for his apparent treachery in holing below the waterline the incipient campaign of Boris Johnson to win the election to be the next Conservative Party Leader and Prime Minister.

Theresa May, our new Prime Minister has had many fundamental issues with which to grasp in the few weeks she has held office, and with a new Justice Secretary, Elizabeth Truss MP, in place, it was inevitable that the implementation of promised major reforms would be delayed.

It is timely, therefore, that Cardinal Nichols should fire a verbal salvo over the political bows to remind our politicians that whilst the Labour Party may be in disarray and be completely incapable of mounting an effective challenge to Government, that is not true of the whole of civil and religious society. The Catholic Church has its own voice, independent of the Commons, and is right to use it when necessary to remind politicians of their pledges and to move crucial issues firmly up the public policy agenda.

The urgency of the case is compelling as both violence and self-harm have continued their inexorable rise in our prisons. Indeed, the Prison Governors Association a few weeks ago described the increasing violence as “unprecedented”, pointing out that the number of suicides has doubled over the last five years or so whilst assaults on staff have increased by 146% in the same period. The claims were met by an announcement of an additional £14 million to fund 400 new prison officers to address understaffing in 10 of the most challenging prisons: understaffing that means prisoners cannot be given the one-on-one attention they need and must spend more time in solitary confinement as the prison authorities lack the resources properly to supervise times for association with other prisoners.

Speaking just a few days after the Cardinal’s call for action, The new Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Elizabeth Truss MP, reaffirmed the Government’s intention to publish a blueprint for the ‘biggest overhaul of our prisons in a generation’. Ms Truss committed spend a staggering £1.3bn on new prisons.

Again, the Government is committed to work to cut reoffending with the Justice Secretary claiming that the cycle of prison, release, re-offending and prison again, is costing taxpayers’ £15bn a year – £1.7m every hour of every day.

‘Almost half of prisoners will re-offend within the first 12 months of release,’ said Truss. ‘More than half can’t read or write to a basic standard, half have mental health problems, and nearly two thirds of women offenders are victims of abuse.’

To prevent re-offending, the Justice Secretary is planning to give governors greater control over their budgets to bring in education and employment schemes and ‘give every prisoner a dedicated officer to support them as they quit drugs, get back into learning…. we are going to make sure offenders come out of prison better able to find work, better able to support their families and ready to turn their lives around.’

The new White Paper on Prisons Policy is expected imminently and should foreshadow legislation being laid before Parliament in the New Year. This is all excellent news because the numbers of those affected by failings in prison policy have never been greater.  PACT (the Prison Advice and Care Trust) reminds us that in addition to the prisoners and guards, there are many others suffering as a result of historic under-funding and unimaginative policies.

A staggering 200,000 children a year are affected by parental imprisonment, sharing in the punishment of their parents. 49% of female prisoners and 23% or male prisoners suffer from anxiety and depression according to Ministry of Justice figures. Hopefully, the White Paper when published will offer new commitments on how these issues will be tackled; along with other areas crying out for attention including provision for pregnant women and new mothers in prison; skills and literacy training to prepare prisoners to return to the workplace; and social skills to ensure that those who have been incarcerated for longer periods are able to cope with our rapidly changing society.

The Cardinal lobbed one additional thought into his speech last month, namely that we should work to encourage employers to drop questions about convictions from the job application process since there is otherwise a risk that some former offenders are written-off unnecessarily. Obviously, there are situations, particularly in the care of vulnerable individuals and in handling valuable items and cash, where this may be inappropriate; but as a general direction of travel, it has got to be sensible.

A great example of how to transform lives through employment is that adopted by the Timpson’s chain of key-cutting, shoe-repairing and dry-cleaning outlets; which has a longstanding practice of not ruling out ex-offenders - finding, in fact, that often they greatly value their opportunity and rise to repay that debt to their employer by delivering excellent customer service.

If you agree with your author’s view that prison reform and offender rehabilitation are a matter of pressing national importance, then don’t put this copy of The Catholic Universe in your recycling bin, send this article instead it to your local MP, asking what he or she will do to improve the lot of prisoners and their families.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Universe of 21st October 2016.

Cllr Chris Whitehouse KSG is Chairman of Westminster’s leading political consultancy, www.whitehouseconsulting.co.uk, Secretary of the Catholic Legislators’ Network, a Trustee of the Right To Life Charitable Trust, and a Member of the Isle of Wight Council (Cons. Newport West)

t: @CllrWhitehouse