Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, delivered a speech to the Centre for Social Justice in which he announced a Prisons White Paper. This blog considers what might be included in the paper and why the voluntary sector should have a meaningful say in its contents.
What will be in the Prisons White Paper?
A White Paper is a policy document produced by the government that sets out proposals for future policy changes and legislation, in theory to provide a basis for further discussion with interested or affected groups and done before a Bill is formally presented to Parliament. The Lord Chancellor announced that the government intends to publish a Prisons White Paper and sketched out some of the key themes that will probably be included:
- The White Paper will include more information on a ten-year plan for the prison estate. He acknowledged that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will further increase the prison population. The government has already committed to deliver 18,000 prison places over the next six years but the Lord Chancellor said the government “must go further”.
- It will look at the future use of technology, taking forward learnings from Covid-19, such as the roll-out of video calling across the estate during Covid-19 to help maintain family contact and the use of technology for education providers to deliver to people in prison remotely.
- It will look at drug supply into prisons and consider how HM Prison and Probation Service can improve its security response to prevent illicit items entering prisons. There might also be a new drug strategy.
- It will explore what a ‘resettlement passport’ might look like for prison leavers, to ensure people leaving prison receive the cross-agency support they need to desist from crime.
- It will build on existing work to help address women’s histories of trauma, exploring ways to further test, evaluate and incorporate trauma-based methods in the women’s estate. This will inform a wider approach to trauma across all cohorts of prisoners.
Though not confirmed by the Lord Chancellor, we expect that implementation of much of the content of the White Paper to be dependent on the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review expected this autumn.
Involving the voluntary sector
Media outlets reported last month that a Prisons White Paper was in the offing. Clinks also attended two roundtables held by HMPPS last month to discuss the long term ambitions for the prison estate. We followed up those meetings with further written evidence urging the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HMPPS to ensure that any further work being developed on such an important issue should involve a full consultation with the voluntary sector. Read our written evidence here.
With the White Paper now confirmed, we reiterate our invitation to the MoJ and HMPPS to engage with Clinks to establish full and proper mechanisms for a much wider consultation to inform the development of this work. We are eager to avoid a repeat of the process that led to the development of the Sentencing White Paper, which was not informed by meaningful consultation despite its significant scope and importance. This resulted in policy changes that will be harmful to the ambitions of rehabilitation and reducing reoffending.
Learning the right lessons from Covid-19
It is clear that learnings from Covid-19 will play a central role in this White Paper, but it is important the right lessons are learned. For example, expanding the use of in-cell technology can offer more flexible access to services but remote learning should not in any way replace the opportunities for face-to-face learning. Video calls should be used to complement, not replace, in-person social visits.
There are also some indications that HMPPS will look to deliver future regimes in small cohort groups and potentially limit unstructured time out-of-cell. While we appreciate some people in prison have reported feeling safer during Covid-19 restrictions, the prolonged impact of isolation and confinement in cells has had a devastating impact on mental health. Any move to establishing regimes with smaller cohort groups must also facilitate less time locked in cells and not prevent voluntary sector interventions that are more impactful in larger group sizes (for example drug recovery services, which are most effective where a culture of recovery can be established amongst peers).
The disparity in the experiences and outcomes for racially minoritised people in prison have long been detailed across a large body of evidence and these inequalities have been present throughout Covid-19, as highlighted by the important work of Zahid Mubarak Trust. This learning needs to be taken forward and at the heart of this policy review there must be a consideration of how HMPPS can ensure that regimes and services are accessible to people in prison equally and fairly. We encourage the MoJ and HMPPS to consult with organisations led by and focussed on racially minoritised people to better understand how to embed equality across the prison estate.
As the Lord Chancellor reminded us in his speech, the government is committed to “make our country a safer place by making our justice system fairer”. Overcrowding in prisons, combined with pressures on staff resource and capacity, provides the biggest obstacle to this ambition as it hinders the delivery of effective rehabilitative and resettlement services, jeopardising targets to reduce reoffending.
Covid-19 has provided a temporary respite to the pressures on the prison population, though this will be quickly reversed as court activity ramps up and the potential impact of changes to sentencing policy that are currently proceeding through parliament are felt. These pressures come at a time of limited resources, as tired and frustrated prison staff work to recover regimes, with some still managing Covid-19 outbreaks.
It is hard to see how the government hopes to meaningfully address these pressures while its legislation elsewhere further fuels population increase. Clinks thinks the MoJ should develop a clear strategy for reducing the number of people in prison by increasing investment in preventative services, diverting people away from the criminal justice system and expanding the use of alternatives to custody.
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