This week the Government released its Prison’s Strategy White Paper. The 81-page document outlines the Government’s plans and ambitions for the prison system over the next ten years.
There are some real positives to be seen in the strategy, movement on issues we have been campaigning on for years. There is hope to be found for people leaving prison, who could see real change to their lives and be given a better chance to move away from crime.
On the bigger picture there is a missed opportunity to make more radical change. Instead of tweaking a system not fit for purpose, the Government could have remade the prison system to genuinely reflect what works to reduce crime and create safer communities.
- Accommodation for every prison leaver at risk of homelessness. There will be a national roll out of the five Vanguard pilots, giving people temporary accommodation for up to 12 weeks after release. This is fantastic news, and a great start to address the huge issue of homelessness after prison. For this to work, there needs to be sufficient and flexible support alongside the accommodation to help people stay in their homes, stabilise and overcome barriers. And there must be longer-term plans to ensure there is a guaranteed housing pathway for people after the 12 weeks and we don’t just postpone the problem.
- Maybe an end to damaging Friday releases? The Government are considering flexibility to release people early where it can be demonstrated to be detrimental to an individual’s resettlement to be released on a Friday. Being released on a Friday is a race against time to get to services before they shut for the weekend. This is a huge step forward and despite some questions about how they will want the proof of detrimental effect, this represents real potential for change and we encourage the Government to deliver on this as soon as possible.
- Education and Employment. There is a welcome focus on education and employment as key drivers of rehabilitation in the strategy. Improving vocational skills, making learning part of workshops and not just the classroom, and increasing people released from prison on a temporary licence to work are all positive. And we know from our work what a difference the commitment to providing ID and increasing bank accounts will have.
Three things that could be better
- There is still a strong punitive element to the Government’s justice plans. England and Wales locks up more people than anywhere in Western Europe and there is no change of direction from the Government on that. In fact, the plan is to increase prison places and incarcerate nearly 100,000 people by 2026. A depressing ambition for any modern society.
- The Government have failed to follow the evidence on effective alternatives to prison. The Government could have introduced a presumption against short sentences, they could have committed to supporting women in the community rather than introducing ‘smaller, trauma responsive, custodial environments for women on short sentences’, they could have committed to replacing all but violent crimes with community orders. These would all have modernised our criminal justice system and made it one built on evidence of what works in reducing reoffending but sadly they are missed opportunities.
- There is nothing on how the Government will tackle racial disproportionality in our prison system and justice more broadly. Black, Asian and minority ethnic people make up 16% of the UK population, yet they represent 23% of people arrested, 27% of people in prison, and are more likely to get longer sentences and be remanded into custody. The lack of focus on tackling inequalities in treatment is stark.
- Can the Government improve and reshape the prison system at the same time as building 20,000 new places? Will we have the additional prison places before the influx of people predicted to be convicted as a result of through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and increase in police numbers? Overcrowding in the current prisons causes huge issues and we should be focused on how we reduce overcrowding and reduce overall numbers in prison.
- Will we see a two tier prison system develop? With the Government’s plans set to increase prison numbers, there will still be a large proportion of the prison population left behind in old dilapidated prisons, with a lack of tech access and all the other associated challenges. How can the Government make sure everyone in prison has the same opportunities?
- How can we ensure the Resettlement Passports work? The idea of bringing together everything someone needs on release is a good one, but this will need real thought in its delivery. In a digital age anything non-digital raises questions of usefulness. But we cannot overlook that currently a large portion of prison leavers don’t have digital access. This will be an area we will be focusing on over coming weeks and putting forward our ideas.