Comment: Cautiously optimistic about Gove’s prison reform promises

Eric Allison scrutinises Gove’s proclamations about reforming the prison system 

Michael Gove Conservative Party conference 2015

“We shouldn’t ignore the failures in our criminal justice system. And the biggest failure of all is the failure in our prisons,” Gove told the Conservative party conference. Photo: Conservatives.


In my first column for Prison Watch UK, back in August, I touched on the appointment of Michael Gove as justice secretary. I said he was at least talking honestly about the massive problems in the prison system
and had overturned the ridiculous ban – imposed by his predecessor, Chris Grayling – on sending books to prisoners.

Since then, Gove has taken it up a notch. At the Conservative party conference he continued to talk truthfully about the problems in the prison system. But he also went much further, further in fact than I have heard a politician go in many a long year.

First, he admitted prisons are failing, failing to rehabilitate, to reform and to ensure criminals do not re-offend, “again and again”.

Then he spoke about never defining individuals by their worst moments. None of us, he said, would want our identity and future decided by our worst moments.

Next came some statistics about those in prison:

Many of those in prison have grown up in poverty, in broken homes and fatherless families. Three quarters of young offenders in custody had an absent father. 41 per cent of prisoners observed domestic violence as a child. 47 per cent have no school qualifications at all, not one single GCSE. And prisoners are 12 times more likely than rest of population to have been taken into care as a child.

Of course, those of us who bang the penal reform drum are aware of those figures. But I would bet it was the first time, for a long time, they have been quoted at a Tory party conference.

Gove quoted lines spoken in parliament by Winston Churchill, in 1910. Churchill said the mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. And went on to say “there is treasure, if only you can find it, in the heart of every man.” Michael Gove repeated that last line, a hundred and five years after his illustrious predecessor.

Fine words, of course, do not butter parsnips. But I have not heard such oratory, and from a politician, who is charged with forming penal policy, for a long, long time and I cannot fail to be heartened by them.

In my time, the two most reforming home secretaries were Roy Jenkins, 1965-67 and Douglas Hurd, 1985-89. In office, Jenkins oversaw the abolition of capital punishment and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Hurd, I believe, was the only home secretary to have seen the prison population drop during his tenure.

I was in prison when the New Labour government came in and had I high hopes. In opposition, they had talked a good fight on penal reform; in office, they increased the prison population by 20,000 and were responsible for a lot of the mess the system finds itself in now.

In particular, Jack Straw and David Blunkett were a disgrace on penal policy and practice. During his tenure as home secretary, 2001-6, Jack Straw received a letter from Stephen Byers MP.

One of Byers’s constituents had been repeatedly raped as a 17 year old by a prison officer at Medomsley Detention Centre, Durham in 1979. The man received compensation, but wanted an apology. Straw replied: “The terms of the agreement did not include an apology.”

Gove has a massive task on his hands. Yet another truly awful prison inspection report was published on Monday. Inspectors visited found HMP Liverpool dirty and unsafe. Ten prisoners died there in the 14 months before the visit and another died soon after the inspection.

The report describes one incident where a prisoner was given no chance to comply with staff instructions before a team wearing balaclavas stripped him naked and left him in a gated cell. Who are the criminals here?

I have spoken to people who know Gove. They say he is a compassionate man who “wants to get things done”. Well, there is an awful lot to be done to put this failed prison system right.

I wish him all the luck he will surely need.

For more on the Conservative Party conference, read our analysis of Cameron’s speech.

Listen to Gove’s address in full:

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