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The importance of good prisons in a criminal justice system

Royal Holloway’s Magna Carta Lecture given by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, at the Middle Temple Hall in London, 6 June 2022

Thank you very much for having me this evening, it is a great honour to be giving this lecture particularly as, for the first time in two years, it’s being held face-to-face – even if the tube strike has slightly curtailed the number of people who could get here.

I’m going to talk to you today about prisons, why we have them, what they’re currently like and how they could play a part in interrupting the cycle of offending and reoffending. I’ll speak for about 25 minutes, leaving us plenty of time for questions.

When I began my review of the youth justice system in 2015, I was struck, but not surprised, by the similarities between some of the children who came to my school, and those who ended up in youth custody.

The stories of their lives mirrored those of many of my pupils – who were brought up in homes that were unstable and sometimes abusive, and where misuse of drugs and alcohol, criminality, family breakdown, mental health difficulties and domestic violence were common.

And while, in most cases, by providing support for the children and their families, we could get them back on track, a few, sadly became involved in crime.

I have a photograph of one such child at home. In the picture, Travis is 11 years old and he is performing in the year 6 leavers’ concert. His best friend was due to sing a solo, but had just had an attack of stage fright and dried up.

Travis stepped in and began the solo himself, fading out only when his friend found his voice. In the picture, he stands with his arms out, joy on his face, while in the background one of the teachers can be seen wiping her eyes with a handkerchief.

Travis is now doing 10 years for grievous bodily harm.

When I walk around a jail, I imagine what the prisoners I meet looked like when they were still at primary school and what sequence of events and choices led them to end up in prison.

The idea of prison – locking criminals up for a period of time decided by the court, is a relatively recent idea. Prior to the 18th century there was much greater reliance on the use of physical punishment or execution. But as the number of offences on the statute book grew, transportation began to be used as an alternative to the death penalty. Initially convicts were sent to the American colonies, but after the war of independence they were transported to Australia where, by the middle of the 19th century, more than 160,000 had made the journey.

In time, transportation itself began to be seen as inhumane, and new prisons began to be built around the country.

The prison reformer Samuel Hoare described the objective as “the enforcement of hard labour, strict silence, and a judicious plan of solitary confinement,” that “will be found the most powerful of all moral instruments for correction of the guilty”.

Oscar Wilde, who was subjected to this regime in Reading jail, where he served most of his two-year’s hard labour, wrote to the home secretary when he was released in 1896, saying:

“For more than thirteen dreadful months now, the petitioner has been subject to the fearful system of solitary, cellular confinement: without human intercourse of any kind… condemned to absolute silence; cut off from all knowledge of the external world and the movements of life; leading an existence composed of bitter degradations and terrible hardships, hideous in its recurring monotony of dreary task and sickening privation.”

Already the tide was turning towards a more liberal approach with a greater focus on education and rehabilitation. The borstal system, designed to reform younger offenders, was loosely based on English public schools, with housemasters and lots of outdoor activity.

And in 1910, Winston Churchill, home secretary in the Asquith Government, partly as a result of his imprisonment during the Boer war, set about making prison more humane, relaxing the rules on solitary confinement and introducing prison libraries.

After the second world war the prison population had fallen to around 15,000, but by the time the role of Chief Inspector of Prisons was created in 1981, there were 40,000 people in prison. I recently dug out the first annual report from 40 years ago: its description of the three main challenges – overcrowding, prisoners spending too much time locked in their cells with nothing to do, and a prison estate that was in poor repair – have been common themes in these reports ever since.

Interestingly, in his foreword to the report, the then home secretary William Whitelaw wrote:

“… consistent with the need to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system, at a time of rising crime, we are seeking a reduction in the prison population, by doing all we can to encourage the recent trend towards shorter sentences.”

This was a very different tone to that which we heard from politicians in the next decade.

This prison population growth during the latter half of the 20th century followed the dramatic rise in the crime rate that began in the early 1960s and peaked in the mid-1990s. Since then it has begun to fall – according to the national crime survey, the gold standard for measuring crime – and few people would know that levels of serious violent crime were higher in 1981 than they are now.

There are many theories for why this happened: in England and Wales the prison population nearly doubled from 45,000 to 85,000 between the early 1990s and the 2010s. In 1993, Home Secretary Michael Howard made his famous “prison works” speech, in which he linked the falls in crime with increased incarceration. At the same time his Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair, was talking about being “tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime”.

But falls in crime since the mid-1990s were not limited to the UK – in the USA and in every country in western Europe there were similar reductions, despite the often very different justice policies being enacted.

By 2030, with more police recruited, the prison population in England and Wales is projected to reach 100,000. Over time there has also been a remarkable increase in sentence lengths, with the average rising from around 11.5 months in 2000 to more than 18 months last year. On inspection it is not unusual to come across young men who are looking at spending the next three decades behind bars.

For many years, policy makers have argued over what prison should be for. Usually it has been a combination of four things: to deter, to punish, to rehabilitate and to protect the public, although the emphasis on each varies over time. And these different functions can easily come into conflict with each other.

There is a small, esoteric lobby that believes in the complete abolition of prison – though what, if anything, should replace it is not entirely clear and it always comes up against the question: what would you do with people like Hannibal Lecter? Even the most passionate prison abolitionists would not necessarily want him as a next-door neighbour.

The existence of prisons – like the courts and the police – is a bulwark against people taking the law into their own hands and applying summary justice to those who they think have wronged them. These institutions provide a degree of separation between victim and criminal that protects us from the consequences of our instinct for revenge.

Few people would argue against prison for serious violent and sex offences. But in a country that incarcerates at a higher rate than any in Europe apart from Scotland, there is certainly a question about who should be going to prison and for how long.

I want to talk now about the current state of prisons in England and Wales and then to consider how they could be improved to become more rehabilitative.

Of the 80,000 prisoners in the country, around 400 are children and 4,000 are women. They are spread around an estate which still includes the crumbling Victorian houses of correction, such as Bristol and Winchester, but also has brand new prisons like Five Wells in Northamptonshire.

They are split into different categories that reflect both the nature of the prisoners they hold and the aims of the establishment, from high security jails such as Wakefield to open prisons like Ford in Sussex.

In March 2020, terrifying projections about how many prisoners could die if Covid got a grip led to quick action by the prison service. Testing was put in place, new prisoners were quarantined, visits were stopped and transfers between prisons were limited.

Our inspections during that time found that, apart from those who were doing prison jobs like cleaning, waste management and kitchen work, most prisoners were locked in their cells for around 22.5 hours a day – more in some cases and especially at weekends.

In a Victorian jail like Bedford or Leicester, that meant that two prisoners were typically spending most of their time in a 12 foot by six foot cell, with a bunk bed, a sink, an unscreened lavatory in the corner, a kettle, a chair and a television set.

Any pretence at rehabilitation was sacrificed to keep staff and prisoners safe from the virus.

Last month, after two years of lockdowns, the prison service finally lifted its last Covid restrictions, meaning the end to social distancing, mask wearing and testing. This means that there should be a return to some sort of normality, and at prisons like Erlestoke in Wiltshire, where I was a couple of weeks ago, the governor was determined to get prisoners out of their cells and back into work and education.

But elsewhere things have been much more disappointing. Since the end of last year we have inspected seven category C training prisons, where there has been a depressingly low level of activity for prisoners in jails whose responsibility is to educate, train and increase the employability of prisoners, with the aim of preparing them for their eventual release.

A sort of post-Covid torpor seems to have infected many prisons, with workshops and classrooms remaining empty and prisoners wiling away their time watching daytime television and sleeping.

This is, in part, because some prisons simply do not have enough staff to run properly. In 2015, in order to save money, ministers reduced the head count of the prison officers. The result was that between 2015 and 2019 the percentage of prison officers with more than three years’ service fell from 91% to 58%.

The loss of these staff, who knew how to keep wings running smoothly, combined with the arrival of synthetic psychoactive substances such as Mamba and Spice, was catastrophic for the prison system.

By the time these drugs had been criminalised, networks for getting them into prisons had been established, meaning that letters, photographs and even clothing could be impregnated, brought into the prison and cut up, sold and smoked.

Fewer staff and more drugs meant that prisoners built up debt they couldn’t pay, and rival gangs began to compete for the lucrative prison market. From 2016 to 2019, levels of violence doubled as the prison service tried in vain to stem the assaults both on staff and between prisoners. More prisoners than ever began to self-harm as the anxiety caused by drugs, violence and debt increased.

There is no doubt that lockdowns reduced the levels of violence at most jails. With only small numbers of prisoners unlocked at any time, there were fewer opportunities for violence. The introduction of better technology, such as body scanners, means it has now become harder to get drugs into prisons.

There are certainly those who would like to maintain this restrictive regime – there is an old prison officer saying that “happiness is door shaped”, meaning prisoners who are locked up can’t do any harm.

We can’t yet know what the long-term effects of extended lockdowns will be on this generation of prisoners, but it is likely there will be a price to pay for the boredom, the inactivity, the loss of family ties, the postponement of group therapy and the lack of education or work.

Reoffending rates for those leaving custody remain stubbornly high at around 40% for adults and over 60% for children. This suggests that most prisons are doing a better job of punishing than they are at rehabilitating or protecting the public from future crime. I don’t expect that after the last two years we will see an improvement these numbers.

If prisons are to be an essential component of a successful justice system that is trusted by the public to keep them safe, then our model needs to change.

There are some who do not really believe that rehabilitation of prisoners is possible. And that the only thing that stops criminals from offending is getting older and having a family.

It is certainly true that most crime is committed by young men, and for many, growing up, taking responsibility for children and finding work are all powerful resilience factors. But the idea that prisons can achieve nothing beyond warehousing offenders until they grow out of crime is as depressing as it is wrong.

Every week I meet prisoners who are desperate to escape the cycle of crime and incarceration. Many are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and they describe how their lives, and those of the people around them, have often been destroyed by their habit, and they want help to change.

Other prisoners have never known anything but the chaotic life in which they have been immersed since childhood – they never succeeded at school and have none of the skills or habits that they will need if they want to hold down a job or stay in a relationship when they are let out.

Prisons like Grendon in Oxfordshire have demonstrated that it is possible to provide intense, therapeutic support for prisoners, some of whom have been fighting the system inside and outside custody all their lives. Similarly, Buckley Hall near Manchester or Warren Hill in Suffolk have shown how to create a rehabilitative culture.

HMP Oakwood, the largest prison in the country, thrives because of the way its leaders have given trust to prisoners. One man, who was serving a very long sentence, told me he had found meaning in his life for the first time in years through running a wood workshop for some of his most vulnerable fellow prisoners. Try telling the staff or the inmates of those jails that prisons can’t rehabilitate.

The idea of rehabilitation describes a process that takes place over time. Criminals do not usually stop offending overnight, but often gradually reduce their criminal output.

There are two main, interlinked factors that support rehabilitation – the psychological and the practical.

The first involves a change in identity away from the anti-social to the pro- social. An offender has to learn to see themself in a different light – as someone who has moved away from crime and who can be a successful person. This psychological change is supported by practical support – when they leave prison, ex-offenders need to have somewhere safe to live, something meaningful to do and they need to be kept both physically and mentally healthy.

This means that rehabilitation works best when there are close links between prisons and the community. And that when it is safe to do so, there must be an expectation that prisoners will be released on temporary licence as they reach the end of their sentence. This helps to reintegrate them back into society, reunites them with their families and gets them into the essential habits of getting up and going to work.

There must also be continuity of health care, so that when they are released, their cases can be picked up by health services outside the jail. Too often those leaving custody suffer a deterioration in their mental health that can lead to self-medication with drugs or alcohol, offending and then a return to prison.

As part of my 2015 review of the youth justice system, I recommended the introduction of secure schools to replace the current youth custody provision. These were to be run by not-for-profit education providers and I am pleased to say that the first, run by Oasis – a large charity that has schools in some of the most deprived parts of the country – will open on the site of Medway Secure Training Centre next year.

While they are inside, prisoners need to be given as much responsibility and trust as possible; they need a system of incentives that encourages and rewards good behaviour. And perhaps most important of all, they need to be

in an environment that seeks to fill whatever gaps there are in their previous development – whether it is learning to read, learning a trade, or being treated for mental illness. They need to feel safe from other prisoners and they need to be cared for by staff members who are calm and authoritative.

In spite of the many dedicated officers and prison governors I meet on my travels, with a few exceptions, we do not yet have a prison system that we can be proud of. Nor are we able to say, with confidence, that it rehabilitates those in its care.

With the right focus on growing great leaders and recruiting and retaining strong and effective officers; with buildings that create a safe and productive environment and a belief that with the right help, most people will stop committing crime; we can develop a prison system that supports change and delivers value for money for the £45,000 that the taxpayer spends on each prison place.

When my former pupil Travis gets out in two years, I want this intelligent and likeable man to get a fair go, to be given a chance to show that what happened in the past does not have to define his future, and that with the right help, he can go on to lead a successful, crime-free life.

Thank you.