Cameron’s prison reforms merely ‘expansion and privatisation’ of criminal justice

Prime minister promises ‘biggest shake-up’ in prisons since Victorian times but experts are sceptical

David Cameron Conservative Party conference speech 2015

‘Resetting the debate’: Cameron announces prison reforms. Photo: Conservative Party

David Cameron has undone decades of Conservative rhetoric of being ‘tough on crime,’ admitting that Britain’s prison system has been a “scandalous failure” for years and calling for reform to be the “great progressive cause” of British politics.

In the first speech by a Prime Minister on prisons in more than two decades, Mr Cameron on Monday called for prisoners to be treated not as “liabilities to be managed” but “assets to be harnessed”.

Prisons aren’t a holiday camp – not really. They are often miserable, painful environments. Isolation. Mental anguish. Idleness. Bullying. Self-harm. Violence. Suicide. These aren’t happy places.

It’s lazy to subscribe to the idea that prisoners are somehow having the time of their lives. These establishments are full of damaged individuals.

Cameron set out solutions to the “scandalous failure” of the UK’s prisons system today, including building six new model “reform prisons,” introducing prison league tables, and devising new ideas on prison education.

He wants to devolve over how they run their institutions to prison governors, in a move modelled on the Government’s academy programme, which, he said, “revolutionised” our schools.

There will also be initiatives to try and reduce the overall prison population by increasing the use of satellite tagging and community punishments.

Cameron described his measures as “proper, full-on prison reform,” – but penal charities and leading thinkers on the issue have played down the announcement.

Reforming sentencing

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, voiced the concerns of several other charities that reforms are nothing without sentencing reform. She tweeted:

Without properly financed alternatives to custody, such as community centres and therapeutic courses that address causes of offending, we will not be able to reduce the prison population, many have said.

Repeating old mistakes

One step further in criticism was Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, a charity that campaigns to dramatically reduce not just the prison population, but the number of people who wind up in the criminal justice system.

“I’m glad that after more than five years in office the Prime Minister has noticed that our prisons are a national disgrace. Violence, self-harm, suicide and squalid living conditions are nothing new in our prisons. But they have all got worse since Mr Cameron has been in office.

“The starting point of any coherent approach to our prisons is a clear commitment to a major reduction not just of prison numbers but of the criminal justice system more broadly.

“The Prime Minister’s proposed reforms are about the expansion and privatisation of criminal justice, rather than being a serious attempt to address the problems in our criminal justice system, or society more widely. They repeat many old mistakes, while adding some new ones.”

Pointing the finger of blame

The Prison Governors Association was “surprised” by the Prime Minister’s comments about the “scandalous failure of prisons”.

While they welcomed the increase in autonomy, they rejected the assertion that our prison system lacks talented leadership. In a statement they said:

“Almost every function within our prisons has been centralised, from choosing who provides education and health to who changes the lights. The number of staff, including governors, has been drastically reduced yet at the same time the prisoner population has increased.

This has led to an increase in the workloads of all staff, increasing stress levels and sickness rates, which has further exacerbated the problem. There has also been an increase, beyond acceptable levels, in violence, self-harm, self-inflicted deaths and the loss of good order. However, these failures cannot be laid at the doorstep of hardworking and overstretched staff who are doing their best to maintain an effective service.”


2 Comments on “Cameron’s prison reforms merely ‘expansion and privatisation’ of criminal justice”

  1. […] Cameron’s prison reforms merely ‘expansion and privatisation’ of criminal jus… → […]

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  2. […] week, in the first speech by a Prime Minister on prisons in more than two decades, David Cameron recognised that the prison system is failing and that reform is […]

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