The role of prisons in offender rehabilitation
Reform roundtable seminar introduced by Dame Anne Owers DBE, Former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons on Tuesday 14 February.
By Will Tanner
The Government has placed prisons at the heart of its ‘rehabilitation revolution’ in criminal justice, pursuing innovative forms of payment by results, the development of working prisons, and the introduction of greater competitive pressures in order to improve value for money and outcomes across the estate. This seminar was convened to explore the subject of “Unlocked potential: The role of prisons in offender rehabilitation”, and was led by Dame Anne Owers DBE, who between 2001 and 2010 served as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons. The discussion around the table, held under the Chatham House rules, was broad and valuable, raising a number of key points.
Prison is all too often a service of last resort, forced to pick up where other areas of society and government have failed, and where intervention is, in many respects, already too late. The problems that prisons deal with are complex and not merely criminal, incorporating mental health issues, substance abuse, homelessness, family breakdown and other social issues too. The incentives – political, financial and operational, and for providers and commissioners alike – all lean towards containment rather than rehabilitation and isolation rather than partnership. Clearly if the criminal justice system is to effectively rehabilitate offenders, then prisons must be part of a greater, multi-agency whole that is equipped to deal with complex demand and incentivised to do so.
This is possible. The evidence from around the table demonstrated that innovative prisons, from both the private and public sectors, are already developing valuable partnerships with other local organisations and intervening further upstream, with a real, positive impact on recidivism. However if these pockets of best practice are to become both systemic and sustainable, other providers need to be incentivised to do the same. The greatest incentive is financial. The Government’s introduction of payment by results in this regard goes some way to incentivising providers, but a more intelligent approach to commissioning holds greater promise still.
In commissioning, the best way to incentivise reinvestment, partnership and earlier intervention would be to devolve budgets and powers for criminal justice to a local level. The Ministry of Justice has neither the capacity nor the expertise to deliver payment by results schemes in every locality in the country, and the Government has already hinted that Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) will have powers wider than their current policing brief. The geographical challenges of the prison estate notwithstanding, PCCs will be well placed to provide leadership and accountability for a broad range of justice outcomes, and they would be incentivised to look beyond the silos of the criminal justice system at more integrated solutions.
If prison is going to be more than just “an expensive way of making bad people worse”, as Douglas Hurd remarked in 1991, then a focus on rehabilitation is vital. Developing a more local approach that places the offender, not a specific service, at the heart of the solution is key to finding a cheaper and more effective way of preventing offenders from repeating the same mistakes.