The Prime Minister today gave an important speech outlining the Government’s vision for reform of the prison system. The PM drew attention to the fact that 46% of all prisoners will re-offend within a year of release, rising to 60% for those on short sentences. CentreForum welcomes the PM’s focus on education for prisoners. This topic has been a priority for us, and we will shortly be releasing a report highlighting the extent of the shortcomings in the current system and setting out our proposals to improve education in prisons.
The major tool for tackling prison failure outlined by the PM is to give greater control to prison governors – “full autonomy” in the PM’s phrase – to run their prisons and control their budgets. This would include control over education in their prisons, with an end to the current regional contracts. The PM announced the intention for six of these new “reform prisons” to be up and running by the end of this year, and half of all prisons to achieve this status by 2020.
This is striking, but by no means unexpected. The Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, has already stated his aims to empower governors and increase autonomy. This also reflects a growing consensus on the need to give governors greater ability to be able to innovate to tackle the rehabilitation of prisoners in their care, through education and other services, while making sure they are accountable for outcomes.
The performance of prisons will be monitored by a new suite of performance measures, potentially including reoffending levels, employment outcomes after release, place of residence following release and progress made in literacy and key skills. The Government hopes that this will encourage transparency and improve the ability to compare the performance of individual prisons across these key variables. Like schools, prisons will find themselves subject to league tables.
This data collection is hugely important if the system is to improve, yet there are two issues to be addressed. The first is a practical barrier: the Government should not underestimate the scale of the challenge in implementing a comprehensive system of data collection and performance measurement in the prisons sector. There is little technological infrastructure within prisons to enable easy capture of data, indeed, the Government itself highlighted the continued reliance on “costly manual data collection” for individual outcomes last December in its response to the Harris Review. The system also suffers from the frequent movement of prisoners in, out and around the system and thus the need for simple systems of recording and clarity of accountability is vital, as well as a substantial level of capital investment in technology needed for easy transfer and analysis of data. The £1.3 billion commitment to build 9 new prisons (5 by 2020) is a start, but modernisation will have to be rolled out across the whole estate if education and training is to be properly integrated with the core life of every prison and if subsequent outcomes are to be monitored effectively.
Secondly, the system will have to be carefully designed to reflect the fact that, unlike schools, prisons have no control over who is admitted, nor do inmates have any choice where they end up. Measures of educational progress in custody are crucial to accurately measure the difference prisons make in light of the particular needs of their populations. Creating league tables and competition between prisons cannot work in precisely the same way as it does with schools. Similarly, with regards to the second key announcement for prison education – the creation of a new social enterprise working with Teach First to recruit high quality graduates into the prison education sector – this will have to recognise the specialist qualities needed for working with the highly differentiated prison population, and the extent to which working environments differ between, for example, a women’s prison as opposed to a high security prison or a young offenders’ institution.
It is important that the Government recognises the scale of the challenge, and the long term commitment required to put these reforms into action.