Just before their departures from government, David Cameron and Michael Gove made important speeches arguing for the radical reform of prisons. The message is that things are going to change, and greater autonomy for prison governors will be central to this.
Prison reform took centre stage with the Queen’s speech in May, and a No.10 press release which referred to enabling prisons to become independent legal entities.
There were predictable cries of privatisation, but a thoughtful blog by Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League (a national charity working for safer communities and fewer people in prison through a reduction in crime) suggests that Mr Gove, as justice secretary, was thinking about prisons being “cut free” from NOMS (National Offender Management Services), the executive agency of the Ministry of Justice.
She suggests the reforms are more likely to use the “trust hospitals or early probation models”. If new PM Theresa May and justice secretary Liz Truss continue down this path, it offers intriguing possibilities.
It is fair enough to be suspicious about cutting public services free from central or local government control, and giving greater freedom and autonomy; but it doesn’t have to be a prelude to privatisation. Look at employee-based community- health service providers like Your Healthcare, no longer controlled by the Department of Health, but proudly delivering NHS services for the public benefit.
Look at Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) and Merthyr Valleys Homes, tenant and employee- owned social housing providers. Look at Welsh Water, co-operative trust schools, and Knowsley Youth Mutual. These are all now independent of the state, but all operating for the public benefit.
And of course, look at foundation trusts. While the member-based governance is more effective in some than others, all are better able to work closely with their localities than they were before; the ties to the Department of Health are reduced; and they are all legally committed to operating for the public benefit, with greater opportunity for “the public” to influence the future.
So this is an opportunity for prisons: for social enterprise to play a greater role; for local agencies, organisations and communities to become partners, and for individuals including local residents, prison staff, prisoners, their families and friends to have a voice and better ways to participate in the important task of rehabilitation.
How might this be achieved, and what might it look like?
Currently, power to run public prisons is granted to governors through their appointment by the justice secretary. While this provides a short leash for maintaining control, it gives governors little freedom to do what works, and it leaves the justice secretary exposed when things don’t go well. It is a poorly designed arrangement, and needs to be changed.
What prison governors really need is not just the freedom to control their own local expenditure, but the freedom to manage and generate income. Prisons and prisoners are potential assets, as both Cameron and Gove recognised.
Progressive governors want to unlock those assets to generate income, and reduce dependence on taxpayers’ money. Freedom to earn and retain income would enable them to pursue more creative and entrepreneurial ways of preparing prisoners for release, keeping communities safe, and saving public money.
But that is an awful lot of freedom or autonomy, and if it is going to be granted, it needs to be supported with expertise and accountability. Establishing prisons as independent legal entities provides the ideal basis for this, and we already know how to design the governance arrangements to make this work. The experience of the last 15 years developing foundation trusts and the other illustrations referred to earlier suggests that it might look like this:
• A legal entity which is legally committed to the public (and not private) benefit
• As an independent entity in its own right, such a body to be responsible for its own income and expenditure, with the power to earn income and retain surpluses which must then be applied for the public purpose. It can own property and has the power to enter into contracts
• A board of directors responsible for holding and exercising power, rather than a single individual. A chief executive is essential, but the board includes other core executive skills for independent existence and other skills appropriate for a prison, plus independent non-executive directors who bring external commercial, management and community knowledge
• A representative body from the local community, separate from the board, but able to contribute to future planning, to play a part in ongoing local accountability for the board, and a point of engagement for local employers, voluntary and charitable bodies and other public sector agencies
• The representative body can also include democratically elected representatives of the significant groups of individuals affected by prisons, such as staff, community (including family and friends of prisoners, volunteers and local residents), and potentially prisoners themselves subject to appropriate limitations.
There are prison governors who already see opportunities for social enterprise, using existing public assets and resources to generate income, and helping to reduce demand on the public purse
Such arrangements provide robust and accountable arrangements for granting freedom and autonomy at local level.
They also provide a clear basis for enabling public servants to be entrepreneurial in the public benefit.
There are prison governors who already see opportunities for social enterprise, using existing public assets and resources to generate income, and helping to reduce demand on the public purse.
This sort of approach might be suitable for some prisons, but in other cases it might be appropriate to establish a separate organisation that could work with and for the prison and which the prison might co-own.
A social enterprise, charity or community organisation, working alongside the prison, could provide a vehicle for developing through-the-gate enterprise, education and training and be the vehicle for a range of other services such as health and social care, mentoring and post- release supervision.
The knowledge and expertise to do this already exists; to enable public services to be cut free or work more closely with community partners; to give freedom and autonomy to public sector pioneers; and to hold such freedom and autonomy in a safe and accountable way through community-based arrangements. We have done it before; but not in criminal justice.
And there is one further area where this foundation approach could bring potentially transformative benefits in rehabilitation and desistance.
All of the examples referred to above in health, housing and education use the mechanism of membership as a means by
which citizens, staff and users can participate. It gives them a mechanism of engagement – if they want to be involved – a clear route through which they can have a voice, and potentially influence the future. It provides a simple way to establish a sense of community ownership, and local accountability.
All of this has equal applicability for prisons. But since reform and rehabilitation are at the heart of what prisons seek to deliver, enabling prisoners to play a part – a civic role as members of their own “society”, with incentives and penalties to support good behaviour – creates a vital opportunity for preparation to return to the community. This potential for membership as a learning mechanism for prisoners has been recognised by practitioners and academics alike – and has a long history. Mr Gove quoted approvingly the early 20th century American prison reformer Thomas Mott Osborne who adopted this approach in his Mutual Welfare League at the notorious Sing Sing prison.
Most prisoners are eventually released into the community. For this to be a positive experience, they need all the help they can get. The chance to be treated as an individual on the inside, and to know there are citizens on the outside who want to be part of the same endeavour, might just be the thing that helps them to turn a corner.