11:14, October 11 50 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-11 11:14:04
Early release won’t cure a prison service that has become a national disgrace

Andrea Albutt, president of the Prison Governors Association, deserves huge credit for ending the organisation’s long, agreeable slumber. Under her watch, it has issued increasingly alarmed dispatches to ministers from the frontline, where her members preside over institutions awash with drugs and violence, denuded of staff and, as she puts it, “full to bursting”.

Overcrowding in prisons is an affront to decency, an engine of disorder and a remarkably stupid way to prepare prisoners for a useful life after release. It’s also an incredibly stressful and downright dangerous environment for staff. This week Albutt essentially called for ministers to grow a pair: to ease the pressure through some form of executive early release of prisoners, regardless of the political consequences.

Politics aside, there are two problems with this. First, executive release undermines the rule of law and victims’ confidence in the system. I do not believe that magistrates are sending people to prison unnecessarily. In my own experience I have seen sentencers make heroic efforts to spare offenders custody. Sometimes custodial sentences are the only option available to give communities a rest from prolific offenders who wreak havoc. We often lose sight of the fact that short-term custody, when the conditions are right, can provide a place of safety and structure for chaotic offenders to address their problems and access services.

The second problem with executive release is the current state of the probation system, which would have to cope with a significant increase in workload at a time when it is already struggling to cope. The service has been hollowed out and broken up by a series of ill-conceived and unnecessary reforms.

The impact of this managerial nonsense, known officially as Transforming Rehabilitation, is laid bare by successive damning reports by the chief inspector of probation, Dame Glenys Stacey. Performance has dipped sharply across the country and places such as London are, according to her, more at risk as a result of an inability to monitor minor offenders. The system is already failing to safeguard the community, and executive release would only magnify this problem.

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Prison service in crisis, says Prison Officers Association chairman

In the long term we need to wean ourselves off our addiction to locking people up cheaply. This, coupled with remote and incompetent corporate management of the prison system, has created the human disaster described so vividly in this week’s highly critical report by the chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, on living conditions in Britain’s prisons.

Locking two people up in a crumbling prison cell built for one for sometimes 22 hours a day, and forcing them to defecate inches from where they sleep and eat, is not only demeaning, it is actively driving prisoners to drugs (in one prison easier to get hold of than soap) as a means to escape boredom and squalor. We desperately need to create alternatives to this sort of custody which command public confidence and help rescue the potential of those who offend against us. But you just can’t do that with a Poundland criminal justice system.

Albutt is right, however, that urgent and decisive action is required. We must create a surge of prison officers to take back large parts of our prison estate that have become effectively lawless. Nothing hopeful can be built in places where there is no safety and where the state is routinely humiliated. Nothing.

The Ministry of Justice ought to exercise some humility and admit frontline staff cuts went far too far. It should issue a plea for a national reserve taskforce to be created from recently departed staff, augmented as a last resort by the military if this is necessary, and go in to regain control of our most disordered prisons.

When you restore order, you restore predictability. Regimes can run again. Services to prisoners can be delivered, and personal security improved. Relationships between staff and prisoners also improve, and rehabilitation becomes a reality instead of the current darkly comic abstraction.

Contrary to popular belief, most prisoners want the staff to be in charge and most prisoners, given the right support, can change their lives. Ungoverned spaces where the drugs subculture is now firmly entrenched must be reclaimed.

Prisons can and should be places of hope and transformation. Even in these acutely difficult times, against the odds, some prisons are doing just that. But all too often our jails – and jailers – are broken. In the end we need significantly more staff, or significantly fewer prisoners. The status quo is untenable. Something has to give.

Ian Acheson, a former prison governor, led the 2016 independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons, probation and the youth justice system