Rehabilitation revolution? The Tory mission to change the prison system

Wormwood Scrubs prison, picture by Dylan Harries from Creative Commons
Wormwood Scrubs prison, picture by Dylan Harries (Creative Commons)

Michael Gove promises “wholesale change” of the prison system. Is his reform agenda One Nation Conservatism in action or just more empty social-justice rhetoric from the Tory government?  

The prison service is in crisis and getting worse. As a report from Nick Hardwick, the former chief inspector of prisons, shows, more prisoners were murdered, committed suicide, self-harmed or assaulted in 2015 than in 2010. “It cannot go on like this,”  he said.  The report, published last July, quoted an inspection at Wormwood Scrubs in which a guard described cells he “wouldn’t keep a dog in.” Change is desperately needed, not just for the prisoners, but for the society in which they will be released back into. “The cost is unsustainable,” Hardwick said. “The profound effects on rehabilitation outcomes are unsustainable.”

David Cameron has said this Parliament will be his last as Prime Minister—and depending on how the European Union referendum goes, his time in power may come to an end much sooner than he’d like. The focus of Cameron’s premiership has now shifted to his legacy, and the social justice agenda that drove his original Tory leadership bid has again come to the fore. In January, he rolled out a policy agenda to address life chances, which included a hefty speech on tackling child poverty. Then, speaking at the Policy Exchange in February, Cameron—the first Prime Minister in 20 years to deliver a speech soley on prisons—said: “When I say we will tackle our deepest social problems and extend life chances, I want there to be no no-go areas. And that must include the 121 prisons in our country, where our social problems are most acute and people’s life chances are most absent.” He has promised prison reform before, including a “rehabilitation revolution” in the previous Parliament; but, as Andrew Neilson at The Justice Gap writes, “it has yet to start.” So will fundamental change really materialise? “I’m clear,” Cameron stated. “We need wholesale reform.”

Enter Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Justice, who Cameron described as “just the man for the job.” Gove is honest and forthright about the government’s own failings regarding the state of the country’s prisons. He believes that while there are many good people working in the prison estate, the system is broken. As he stated in a speech given at the Prisoners Learning Alliance last July, Britain’s prisons are “out-of-date, overcrowded and in far too many cases, insanitary and inadequate.” Good people can do better jobs if the system, and the infrastructure behind it, receives a major overhaul. “No government serious about building one nation, no minister concerned with greater social justice,” he said, “can be anything other than horrified by our persistent failure to reduce re-offending.”

Gove and Cameron want to put rehabilitation front and centre in the prison reform debate. That means addressing how the state cares for prisoners while in custody. It’s an approach built on a foundation that Christians can support: that through repentance, forgiveness and transformation are possible. It’s also common sense. If prisons harden people and propel them further down the road of criminality, then they provide a disservice to society. By fixing the prison system, we can help prisoners change their lives, better protect those who work in them, help break the cycle of reoffending, keep society safer, and save the tax payer money. The current situation in our prisons is far from this ideal. This is why Gove and Cameron want to relook at how the state cares for prisoners—from the buildings in which they are housed, to the services they receive, and to the support they get upon release. “Our streets will not be safer, our children will not be properly protected and our future will not be more secure,” Gove believes, “unless we change the way we treat offenders and offenders then change their lives for the better.” Borrowing from Churchill, Gove pointed to the spirit in which the government will carry out its work. “There is a treasure, if only you can find it, in the heart of every man.” This is a profound shift from the myth that being tough on crime means being unnecessarily tough on criminals.

Michael Gove is trying to change the UK’s criminal justice system so that it works more efficiently and with a renewed mission to rehabilitate. Those on both the left and right of the political spectrum should support the direction he is travelling. But Christians in particular should support these changes, because we believe in a God of second chances. I’ve been a member of a church that embraced men convicted of the worst crimes imaginable, but, believing in the restorative and transformational power of a merciful God, the church congregation walked with them on the path of redemption, even as a sneering press jeered from the front pages of Sunday tabloids. They now have jobs, children, and have become productive members of society.

Christians are good at caring for society’s outcasts, it’s what we do. But we’re less good at addressing structural problems. Despite the faith and good intentions of the people working in prisons and related institutions, the system is broken, and needs major change. Gove, appealing to the New Testament, said in his speech, “The exhortation in St Matthew’s Gospel to help the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned is taken seriously, and lived out, by thousands of our fellow citizens every week. We should celebrate their example, and the faith which sustains them. But while there are so many good people in our prisons, we are still, as a society, failing to make prisons work as they should.”

The way prisons operate currently in the UK fails the society they’re supposed to protect.  According to government figures, 46% of all prisoners will reoffend within a year of release and 60% of short-sentenced prisoners will reoffend within the same period. Prisons are also horrible places for the offenders. Any functional justice system depends on the corrective and deterrent powers of punishment. But prison, by denying liberty, is the punishment; it should not be thought of as a place of further punishments. Prisons should correct misbehaviour, but they shouldn’t cause harm—physical, emotional, psychic or spiritual. As the Prime Minister said, “Current levels of prison violence, drug-taking and self-harm should shame us all. In a typical week, there will be almost 600 incidents of self-harm; at least one suicide; and 350 assaults, including 90 on staff.” These kinds of numbers, and the human suffering they represent, are appalling and wrong.

The Christian concept of justice never ends with punishment. In the Bible, justice manifests as a transformative force. Professor of Biblical Law, Jonathan Burnside, writes, “Justice [in the Bible is] seen as a mighty, surging river, like the Jordan in full flood. This picture teaches us that justice is not a static state (like the scales of Justicia) but an intervening power: it strikes and changes, restores and heals. It’s dynamic and it rushes onwards and it brings life to a parched land. Justice has the potential to be transformative, not only to the victim of the crime but also to the offender.” In a civil society, the justice system should make the victims of crime its chief priority; but the system fails victims if it doesn’t also seek to prevent future crimes from happening. The Bible is not shy about punishment. But Christians believe that God, through his grace and mercy, heals people and relationships. In short, we practice a faith of second chances, with forgiveness of our sins at the heart of our faith. Importantly, the Bible doesn’t envision retribution as the principle aim of punishment. This, says Burnside, has important implications because it means that “to punish with justice means that it is not enough simply to punish. Justice is not served simply by punishing people but by putting things right.”

The agenda the government is pushing for prison reform, or at least the spirit in which it is being carried out, aligns with this biblical sense of “putting things right.” Those of us who are Christians should hold the government to account along these lines—what we might identify as relational lines—for the reforms it does implement. Do the policy changes lead to reduced reoffending, and better reintegration into society? Are families supported to reabsorb members returning from prison? While victims must always come first, Cameron, rightly, believes that “we must offer chances to change, that for those trying hard to turn themselves around, we should offer hope, that in a compassionate country, we should help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path.” Some of the proposed changes, it should be noted, are quite hard nosed, including increased powers to deport foreign nationals. But Gove and the government should be lauded for bringing rehabilitation to the top of the agenda.  As Burnside writes, “Doing justice means making room for growth, healing and the possibility of restored relationships. It is integral to punishing with justice. If this question isn’t asked, punishment loses its legitimacy and moral authority.” Yes, there must be punishment, but for there to be justice, there must also be a road to redemption and reconciliation.