Justice secretary shows contempt for prison experts | Letters

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Liz Truss visiting HMP Brixton in November 2016. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/PA

Yet again, we have a justice secretary demonstrating contempt for both experts and any other commentators who know what they are talking about over prisons and prison policy (Truss to announce four new supersized jails, 22 March). Titan prisons, first so dubbed by then justice secretary Jack Straw (no party political point, this), are the very reverse of the way forward.

Alan Travis rightly cites Lord Woolf in his seminal 1990 report and Peter Dawson of the Prison Reform Trust. This time even the Labour opposition has it right: shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon identified the blindingly obvious truth that larger prisons alone merely demonstrate an ever-greater capacity to shrug off the crying need for a drastic reduction in prison numbers. Locking up ever more of our on the whole non-violent, inadequate, disturbed and disadvantaged population is a non-policy of “out of sight, out of mind”. The damage to the very fabric of our society stares us practitioners in the face every single day.

The sole beneficiaries of this further overdosing on the wrong medicine would be the profit-hungry mega-companies to which the construction, containment and other services entailed would assuredly be outsourced should this justice secretary get her way. Over this issue if no other, come back, ex-justice secretary Michael Gove: all is forgiven.
Malcolm Fowler
Solicitor and former chair of the Law Society’s criminal law committee
Tipton, West Midlands


• The government also claims that the four new mega-prisons – ostensibly justified as a way to modernise the penal estate and reduce prison over-crowding – will generate financial investment and increase security for the surrounding communities.

There is little evidence for this latter claim, but plenty indicating that a new prison is likely to be harmful to local people.

Prisons are warehouses for people with mental health problems. Problematic drug usage is reportedly at epidemic levels in prisons. A new prison increases demands on the NHS, so inevitably leads to a deterioration in existing health services for local people.

A new prison also results in more children left without fathers or mothers, more elders left without carers, and other members of the family, such as partners, suffering financial hardships.

And, rather than reducing fear of crime locally, prisons increase the public’s sense of insecurity.

Given the historic failings of prison to meet its rehabilitation goals, the current tightening of government budgets, and the fact that England and Wales now have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe, the most rational solution to overcrowded prisons is to radically reduce the prison population.

Instead of building new mega-prisons, the government should be aiming to deliver social security by ensuring that all people in our society have access to decent healthcare, housing, education and jobs.
Dr David Scott
Bury, Greater Manchester

• The news that this government plans to create 5,000 new prison places should bury any pretence that Elizabeth Truss is concerned to introduce positive prison reforms.

The prisons and courts bill abandons the commitment in the Prison Act 1952 and Prison Rules 1999 that the aim of prison is to “encourage and assist” prisoners to “lead a good and useful life”, and replaces it with a duty to “prepare prisoners for a life outside prison”.

It is not to imply that prisons ever succeeded in this to suggest that the function is considerably reduced rather than expanded in the wording of the bill. Prisoners will be “skilled” to work in a low-wage, zero-hours and zero-rights economy and governers, given control over their budgets, will be audited on their success. Out will go any pretence of arts or education as an end in itself for prisoners. What governor would be brave enough to replicate the arts programme of the special unit of HMP Barlinnie in the 1970s, when their success will be measured, as Liz Truss states, on developing “education and training to match the skills and qualifications prisoners need in the local labour market”?

It’s easy enough to see what would actually be required to help most of the people doing jail time to turn their lives around – decent jobs, decent housing and decent rehab facilities would help most of the people doing jail time to turn their lives around. That they are not available is a product of coherent design, not unhappy accident. Our jails are full because the most vulnerable have been left as flotsam on the tide that’s carried the rich to new highs. All the proposed “reforms” offer is greater numbers banged up, with a McJob as a measure of their rehabilitation.
Nick Moss
London

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