Monday, July 25, 2016

Gove’s Policies 1

Those not intimately involved with the reform process will only note its beginning and its apparent ending, and the lack of change. This is not surprising. The reforms were intended to be strategic, not quick. It is only in examining the specifics of the reform agenda that we can discern how the potential outcomes could actually improve the prison system and how much scope within these changes there may be to address the specific concerns of prisoners.
Policy areas highlighted by Gove include Education, Work, Categorisation, Release on temporary license, and Autonomy. Together, changes in these areas are hoped to lead to better rehabilitation opportunities and so reduced reoffending. In this blog I explore Education and Work.
The problems that have slowly been building within prison education are now self-evident, and no one supports the status quo. Education has been reduced to basic skills, rendering education a desert for the literate and numerate. Access to higher education has been decimated. It is not too much for me to say that under the current structures I would not have been able to achieve what I did educationally. This cannot be right.
Gove understood these issues, and asked Dame Sally Coates to explore the present situation and make positive recommendation. The Coates Review recommendations have been universally applauded for not only discerning the problems but for proposing workable solutions. Two of her recommendations could have a revolutionary effect, and are ideas that I suggest would never be generated from within the Prison Service. Firstly, removing the limit on Governor's  funding courses above Level 3. With ever increasing sentence lengths, prison education has become irrelevant to much of the estate, particularly long termers. Removing this limitation would again make education a viable option for interested prisoners. Prison education could become more than the sum of its current target-driven parts. The catch with this proposal is funding; no Governors have spare in their budgets to increase educational opportunities. The Treasury would have to be persuaded that investing in education would reduce reoffending costs and the Treasury seems incapable of such forward thinking. It’s a hard political reality that the Ministry must function within constraints set by the Treasury.
The present educational structure, centering on basic skills, is driven by managerial targets. It is not driven by prisoner needs. As long as this structure exists, then prison education may continue to be irrelevant. With the adoption of Coates’s recommendations, education could return to being enabling and enriching. This is a desperately needed for those many prisoners who face several years of captivity and who are presently hamstrung.
The second revolutionary recommendation was to provide some level of internet access for educational purposes. I repeat. Internet access. Everyone with any contact with the prison system is made instantly aware of the Dark Age that begins at the Gate. HMPS doesn’t do technology. It has a positive aversion to it. This attitude runs so deep that even attempting to engage HMP about technology is nigh on impossible.
The conversation inevitably runs into the mantra of all unthinking Governors, “Security!!!”. This is the catch-all concern that can be used to prevent any change, and often is. No internal review of prison education would even raise the issue of the internet; it required an outside expert to put the issue on the table. Security is, of course, a legitimate concern. However, the Norwegian prison system manages to provide Net access to all prisoners, the various restrictions based on the security category of the prison. Very circumscribed for High Security, to unrestricted access in Open prison. By comparison, the only Net access available in British Open prisons is on illegal mobile phones.
It is an absurd situation, to expect to deliver quality education in an information economy without the internet. At a stroke, most distance learning is rendered unavailable. Worse, a basic literacy in the use of the web is prohibited, when prisoners are expected to be released and integrate. This is farcical.
Had Gove asked the Prison Service to address the perceived problems in education, we can be confident that the internet wouldn’t even get a mention. The use of outside expertise was crucial just to have the issues raised.
Ken Clark made an exceptionally good speech on work….and no changes followed. Gove not only appreciated the positive effects that can flow from work, but intended to break with historical practice to actually provide a new model.  The willingness to use the goodwill and experience of those like Timpsons suggested that there are possibilities to change the nature of prison work, a view I took some persuading to accept. I have, as you’d expect, seen and heard it all before. Indeed, my most intractable disputes were over exploitative work.
It can be done. Prison work can be made useful, skilled, profitable for everyone, and lead to better opportunities on release. Even a brief glance around the prison estate reveals interesting pockets of inventive solutions. The Clinks restaurants are one example, alongside the Timpsons training and employment schemes. Other small schemes, often transitory, pop up in particular prisons whilst being supported by particular staff, which then wither when those staff move on.
A perfect illustration of what is both possible, yet undermined by prison culture, was the Howard League's Barbed Design Studio. Created through public subscription, Barbed employed and trained prisoners to the standard where Barbed was undertaking design work for commercial clients. This was clearly a model with potential. The problem was, it was sited within a prison. Prison staff failed to throw their weight behind the scheme, leading to workers not being unlocked for work; and the regime did not support a genuine length working day. Commercial work cannot be undertaken in these uncertain circumstances, and despite having a trained workforce and profitable orders, Barbed was forced to close.
The lessons Barbed highlighted were that any scheme must have the full support of Governors and staff, and the institution must be prepared to be flexible on its regime in order to accommodate genuine work and training. It is not the expertise or ideas that are lacking, it’s the Prison Service attitude that undermines genuine work. The drive to fulfil meaningless targets overshadows positive change.
The solutions to the work and training issue exist in the minds of creative business people and the rare creative governor. Using the expertise and goodwill of people such as Timpson’s reveals Gove’s reticence to put this problem into the hands of a Prison Service that’s failed to address it. However, no matter how coherent and positive the business ideas, the attitude of the institutions must be made more flexible and business minded.
There are constraints to changes in prison work which must be acknowledged. Firstly, prison service managers are not businessmen, let alone entrepreneurs. The whole selection and training of managers centres, perhaps inevitably, on selecting out creative thinkers. We have shifted from the old “officer class” of Governors, ex-military, to a class of bureaucrats. This shift accompanied a broader societal move towards managerialism, exemplified behind bars by the endless spawning of regulations and targets that currently comprise “prison”. Secondly, there is the “short termers conundrum”. Will it ever be possible to find meaningful work for prisoners not in prison long enough to be upskilled?

Reforming prison work, making it both meaningful and profitable, is a strategic imperative. If this area cannot be reformed, there must be little confidence that other reforms could be implemented.

1 comment:

  1. Education is key! I'm in the middle of writing a book about this issue!

    I escaped a prison sentence but my two years at probation just involved chatting about how the last two weeks have been or turning up only to be sent home for another two weeks because the 'offender manager' was 'off sick' yet again!

    Is it any wonder then why I started reoffending half way through a suspended sentence!? But by this time, some idiot was carving up the probation service and selling it off to the retard with the most money and the offender managers started jumping ship.

    Now on my second sentence, I can honestly say I have never had so much fun! Offender managers are on temp contracts and only working a couple of months before having to move to another place (better money as a temp, something an OM told me) and I get someone new every time!

    Over the past year, I've spent my sessions introducing myself to the next temp, chatting about the weather and complaining that I have done NOTHING STRUCTURED with them based on the offence and stopping me re-offending again and they write it down on their notepads and, surprise surprise, two weeks later I meet yet another OM who hasn't read the notes, couldn't give a toss and just wants to know 'how my week was!'

    I have literally seen every OM in the local office (permanent and temp) and still nothing has been done.

    At the end of the day, the morons in government don't care about you whether you are behind bars or serving a suspended sentence. Some offenders in my position might be happy not being seen for the entirety of their suspended sentence (yes it has happened, one temp OM told me of her disgust at finding an offender serving his final month without ever being seen by an OM!), but I want help. I want to stop offending as opposed to being left on my own to get even more bored and therefore commit more crime!

    Her Majesty's Government is nothing but a class A cock up!