When Chris Grayling took over as Justice Secretary in 2012, he announced a twofold ambition: to bring down the cost of prison, and make life “harder” for those inside. By his own criteria, it would appear Mr Grayling has been doing a stand-up job. Despite the poor performance of many private prisons, an outsourcing drive has sped up – bringing costs down – and plans are in place to create more “mega-jails” that, by packing in prisoners, provide economies of scale. Meanwhile, a report from the Prison Reform Trust details the effect of these changes, combined with drastic budget cuts across the board since 2010, on prisoners themselves: serious disturbances are on the rise, safety is declining, and the number of deaths in custody last year reached the highest level on record.
To outsiders this might look not so much like success, but a hurried and dangerous exercise in cost cutting. It is almost 25 years since the Strangeways prison riot drew attention to the explosive combination of overcrowding prisons and treating those inside them poorly. By ripping up the plans of his predecessor Ken Clarke to increase the number of community sentences, Mr Grayling left himself little option but to keep shunting low-level criminals into ever fewer prisons (16 have been cut under the Coalition). On top of this, harsh reductions in inmate privileges – including the ill-conceived ban on sending in books – have bred a sense of injustice among inmates, the Prison Reform Trust reports.
With fewer prison staff, the co-operation of those in custody is vital in keeping order. Treating prisoners like naughty children (as, for example, in the ban on 18-rated movies) makes this harder, and offers little in the way of rehabilitation. The strenuous denial that a riot occurred in the overstretched Oakwood prison – a flagship private institution, run by G4S – adds to the sense that these reforms are simply creating more problems than they solve.
A whiff of dogma has yet to lift: Mr Grayling let it be known that he wanted to bring in “right-wing” solutions to correct the “palpable failures” of the left. This is unnecessary politicking. What works is the question, and on no count has Mr Grayling convinced in that regard.