A last minute blog before the curtains fall on 2016. As a year, will it get a rapturous applause and an encore I wonder? No, I don’t think it will. Not from the point of view of one of my main blog themes – prisons – at least. A re-wind to the beginning and a second chance…? Well that would be wonderful.
This time last year I was excited. I think all those who work in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) were. We were facing unprecedented possibilities of genuine reform within the sector. As Justice Secretary, Michael Gove had done his homework thoroughly, rather ironically consulting and listening to the experts more than most of his predecessors had done. He commissioned Dame Sally Coates to create the Education Review: Unlocking Potential to which even individuals like me were given an opportunity to contribute. My ambition to make the case for the arts at government level was looking set to be realized.
One meeting rapidly followed another until I found myself sitting at a round table in the Ministry of Justice next to Ed Vaizey, (Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries), Andrew Selous, (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Prisons and Probation) and leading representatives from the main Arts charities and organizations. It was a unique gathering of brains stuffed with experience and insights, and muscle–toned limbs used to pushing open locked doors to deliver the goods. Together the ideas expressed by each person in turn formed a blissful chorus of logic and humanity.
In previous speeches since July 2015, Michael Gove had been setting a compassionate tone for the reforms to be made: “The most important transformation I think we need to make is not in the structure of the estate, it’s in the souls of its inmates.” Revolutionary words for a Conservative Justice Secretary, welcome words for all of us who have worked for decades to get this message to policy level. And in February 2016, as the first Prime Minister in over 20 years to do so, David Cameron had made a speech wholly dedicated to Prison Reform in which he finally dashed all die-hard claims that “Prison Works!” and condemned them as a scandalous failure, finally shifting the emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation: “In short: we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed”.
So there we were, on July 14th, a harmonious choir of top experts and government ministers, all singing from the same song sheets, endless verses of ideas that would work; that would reduce re-offending rates, make prisons safer, more productive and cost-effective; that would help prisoners learn their way out of their cul-de-sac situations and find their potential to be their better selves. Hallelujah indeed! But outside the vultures were circling above the exit to St James’s Park tube station where the Evening Standard headlines screeched like car brakes: GOVE SACKED.
In his own words several months on, “No matter how many times you rerun the movie, it has the same ending: me driving 100mph and crashing into a brick wall”. He hadn’t only written off his own position and career though, he had also blown up his own vision leaving our song sheets fluttering in the wind. The very next day Ed Vaizey, who had been nervously consulting his phone throughout the meeting, had lost his post and shortly after, Teresa May’s government asked Andrew Selous to step down too. In one clean wipe of the round table, the vital government hands and arms of the ideas were gone and with them many of the hopes for imminent reform. In their place we have an as yet unimpressive Liz Truss, moved from her position as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – a position of staggering irrelevance to her new clientele. And while she commissions yet more reviews, people in our prisons riot, commit suicide and die violent deaths.
riot officers at HMP Birmingham, December’16
British prisons are in more dire need of reform now than when I started my career in the 1980s. They are inhumane, illogical, ineffective places that cost us all a fortune. They do not work because the ideas that were sung around that table are being shuffled back to the bottom of the pack in favour of the crisis management sticking plasters that constitute normal reforms. We need radical visions, a change of attitude and approach. We need that Rehabilitation Revolution we were promised. And above all we need to treasure hunt in the heart of our prisoners, for, once they have discovered their own treasure, they will not re-offend.