I became the Minister for Prisons six weeks ago. When I first visited prisons – teaching briefly in Oxford prison – in the early 1990s, there were 45,000 prisoners in Britain. Today, there are 85,000. This is not because crime has increased – the national crime survey suggests that there was four times as much crime, twenty years ago, than today.  It is because we are imprisoning more people for longer sentences – far more than the Scandinavians or the Dutch. (Although far fewer that in the United States).

The MP for Darlington analysed the backgrounds of our prisoners in a speech in parliament this week:

“27% have been taken into care, compared with 2% of the general population; 49% have been excluded from school, compared with 2%; numeracy and literary levels of an 11-year-old or below at 65% and 48% respectively; 72% of men and 70% of women with two or more mental disorders; 83% of men with a history of hazardous drinking; drug misuse at 66%.”

The vast majority of prisoners are there for violent crimes or sex offences, which carry a sentence of longer than four years. Violence against other prisoners, and against prison staff is at a record high, and so are incidents of self-harm – partly because the prisons are awash with new psychotropic drugs. Half of people convicted reoffend within a year – imposing great cost and suffering on the public. And this level of reoffending has remained constant for decades, almost regardless of the resources invested in the prisons, the efforts of charities and reformers, the philosophy of prison management, or whether the government has been Labour or Conservative.

For many prison reformers the key is to have far shorter prison sentences, and to keep far fewer people in jail. But at the same time, there is continual pressure – often from victims – for longer sentences as punishment for crime. (At the moment, for example, you could be sentenced for five years for causing a death by overtaking on the A66; but on Wednesday this week, I heard from MPs who have been campaigning to increase the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving to a life sentence). Many critics seem to question whether it is even possible to fundamentally reform the prison system. And having spent a decade of my life trying to disillusion new Ministers who were trying to turn around Afghanistan, I sympathise with their sceptical attitude to a new Minister – and their detailed predictions of how almost everything I suggest has been tried before, and will either prove futile or counter-productive.

But I still believe something worthwhile can be done, and relatively quickly. First, for example, as I have tried to argue in some recent articles, we can clean up our prisons. The inspectors found mounds of garbage rotting in the yards of Liverpool prison. I found almost every window of every cell broken in a single wing. But when I visited Alt Course prison, a mile and a half away – a similar size prison, of the same category, drawing from the same population – I found a clean space, a sense of dignity and purposefulness, and a good preparation for return to the community – centred on impressive metal welding workshops. Alt Course was a newer building, but this did not explain all the differences. Liverpool is comparatively well-staffed, and as the excellent new Liverpool Governor, Pia, has shown in a few weeks, it is possibly to clean up the prison yards simply by increasing the number of prisoners on yard-cleaning duty from three to eighteen.

Again, I disagree with the conventional wisdom that stopping drugs entering prison is a doomed game of ‘whack-a-mole’ (if I stop people carrying them in, they will find another route – in letters impregnated with narcotics, or carried by drones); and that the only way of reducing drugs is to reduce demand. I am confident that by increasing the number of body-scanners and dogs, by fixing the windows (which prevents prisoners reaching out to take drugs off the drones), we can achieve a significant reduction. Hold me to account – look at the drugs testing rates in the worst thirty prisons today, and compare them with the rates in twelve months time. And I believe that if we can reduce the flow of drugs this will have a positive effect on debt and violence in prison, and on the rehabilitation of prisoners.

In order to help these things happen (and increase the quality of education in prison, and linking released prisoners to housing – homelessness among prisoners leads to a very high rate of reoffending), we are recruiting an extra 2,500 prison officers. But in the end, success will be about leadership. No minister should pretend to micro-manage 140 separate prisons. The best prison governors already show how to succeed despite all overwhelming problems in our prisons. We need to invest ever more in the training and development of our prison staff, (and consider establishing a staff college for governors). This is only the beginning – there are hundreds of other things that will have to be done over decades – to keep society safe from crime, and reduce reoffending. But my instinct is that with focus and pragmatism, we can make much difference to our prisons than we fear.

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