Is that still all you’ve got, Mr Cameron?

A response to David Cameron's prison speech

It was refreshing to hear a Prime Minister, and a Conservative one at that, promising to introduce some of the reforms that prison campaigners have been calling for since records began. It is also surprising to find so many areas of agreement with David Cameron.

It is true, for example, that reoffending rates are too high and that the experience of many within prison walls is inadequate and shameful.

However, Cameron opened his speech with a strange claim to fame – that he was the first Prime Minister in 20 years to do a speech just about prisons. Putting aside the fact that for more than a quarter of that, he’s been the PM, and the more recent deluded contribution to the debate by Mr Gove, there are good reasons not to consider prisons in isolation.

Prison is only the tip of the criminal justice iceberg.

It is the place of last resort and the worst-case scenario.

Discussing prison in isolation from the rest of the criminal justice system is deeply unhelpful. What happens in the police station, the court and the community are significant, essential elements of the solution.

Every one of the principles of reform that Cameron laid out applies just as much, if not more, to those professionals engaging with vulnerable people outside, but at risk of going into, the prison system.

It is absolutely right to explore more effective ways to help people who are in prison improve their literacy and kick their drug habit. But it is far more effective to do this before they are incarcerated. To see these two as distinct from each other is to miss valuable opportunities to have a far greater impact.

Structural imbalances are exacerbating disadvantage

For some the inadequacy of the current system is even more potent.

Women are being imprisoned more often than men, further from home and in inappropriate institutions – nearly all of the women’s prisons are the highest category, which only a tiny proportion of the female prison population has been sentenced to. 70% of women in prison are on remand, and never receive a custodial sentence. It is not because they need to be there, but because resources are not being invested in the alternatives.

Although 71% of them will be in prison for 12 months or less, while they are there, many, many of them are losing their children, their homes, their jobs and any stability they had. They are experiencing extremely high rates of mental illness and self-harm. There is ample evidence that prison for women, particularly those who serve short sentences for minor, non-violent crimes, exacerbates the problem.

This is not a new realisation. The evidence was highlighted 10 years ago by Baroness Corston. She concluded at that time that “Custody as it exists today is disproportionately harsher for women than men,” and still far too little has changed.

Cameron’s speech, and Gove’s subsequent offerings, are incredibly thin on the ground in terms of any concrete suggestions about what, other than the current arrangements, might work. The eggs seem to be mostly in the electronic tagging basket.

By focusing so much attention on the concern for where an individual is, Cameron is treading the old path that Gove is a such a keen proponent of, and which has led to the inadequate prison situation. Restricting someone’s movements does nothing to address the elements of their life that led to their conviction. It is unclear what “chances for change” Cameron has in mind.

There is potential within the existing system

We talk about a criminal justice system for good reason – people move through its various elements, often circling in and out due to re-offending, or breaches. Changes at various points have implications elsewhere. Understanding what works means looking at the whole system.

It might be that there are solutions that exist in other unexpected corners of it that can contribute to the outcomes desired further down the line. There are potentially powerful provisions within the legal system that are not yet being used to their greatest advantage. For example, Cameron may not wish to make changes to the sentencing powers of judges, but what about looking at how magistrates, judges and juries get their information? Perhaps better use of pre-sentencing reports, for example, would ensure that courts are getting a rounded view of an individual, and so allow them to make an informed decision about what the most appropriate sentence might be.

For this to work we need to connect lawyers, jurors, the judiciary and all those working in alternatives to custody with those in the prison system.

There are many aspects of what Cameron is proposing that do have promise, but it is not enough. Not only are there signs that there is little meaningful intention behind the rhetoric, particularly from the Minister who will be responsible for implementation. For us to see the real change that we need, it is essential to think more co-operatively, more boldly, and more openly. Only then we will see the turn around that will make a difference.