Four regressive things the coalition has done to the criminal justice system

The Guardian reported this week that prison governors have been ordered to cut costs by £149m a year. Cuts aren't the only regressive thing the coalition are doing to the criminal justice system, however.

The Guardian reported this week that prison governors have been ordered to cut costs by £149m a year, which will reduce the costs of incarceration by £2,200 a year per prisoner. These cuts have been planned by Michael Spurr, the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service.

This fits in with justice secretary Chris Grayling’s strategy of reducing prison costs. Grayling wants more prisons to be operated like the G4S-run Oakwood Prison near Wolverhampton, which costs 31 per cent less than equivalent prisons in the public sector, and which holds 1,600 inmates.

The ill-advised idea to emulate Oakwood across the whole justice system should be seen in the context of a raft of unwise decisions which the government has taken on justice policy. Here are four other regressive things the government has done:

1. Prison closures and outsourcing to private companies

The closure of small public sector prisons and their replacement by larger prisons run by private companies is a key part of the government’s strategy on justice policy.

However, campaigners for reform of the prison system argue that smaller prisons tend to be better at rehabilitating their inhabitants, due to the fact that they have a higher ratio of staff to prisoners, and that they usually hold people closer to their their home area.

The government’s announcement in September last year that four more prisons would be closed and replaced by two new ‘super’ jails was condemned as “short sighted” by Peter McParlin, the chairman of the Prison Officers Association, and was also criticised by the Prison Reform Trust.

Last week, MPs on the House of Commons public accounts committee highlighted the fact that Oakwood prison and Thameside (a prison in London run by Serco) are performing worse than the the smaller public sector prisons which they replaced.

Outsourcing the prison system to private companies is also dangerous because it creates a profit-making industry with a financial interest in locking up more people. This could lead to politicians being lobbied to change the law so that more people will be sent to prison, regardless of whether it is actually necessary to reduce offending.

2. A harsher prison regime which does nothing to aid rehabilitation

Chris Grayling has implemented changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme in prisons which have resulted in a new ‘Spartan’ regime for inmates. However, some of these changes are highly controversial.

The most prominent is the ban on sending books to prisoners, which has been criticised by 80 leading authors in a letter organised by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Education is an essential part of rehabilitation. It has arisen as result of the new rule that prisoners can no longer receive parcels from outside, only letters and cards. From now on they will only be able to access books by using prison libraries (which are often under-stocked and inadequate), by obtaining funds to buy books or by moving up from the ‘basic’ level of the IEP scheme through good behaviour.

Prisoners on the basic level also have their time on the phone to family members limited to 10 minutes, are denied daily access to the prison gym, and are not allowed to have a TV in their cells.

Other rules include the banning of guitars with steel strings (but not those with nylon strings), and prisoners being made to wear a uniform for the first two weeks of their sentence.

Since Grayling’s new regime was introduced, the number of suicides in prisons has doubled.

3. The part-privatisation of the probation service

Also highly controversial is Grayling’s policy of part-privatising the probation service. Under his plans, 35 probation trusts in the public sector will be replaced with 21 “community rehabilitation companies” from the private sector (though the most serious ex-offenders will still be monitored by the National Probation Service).

However, an internal risk assessment by his own department has warned that his plans involve a more than 80 per cent risk of “an unacceptable drop in operational performance”, leading to “delivery failures and reputational damage”.

But Grayling still appears to be in a hurry to implement his plans, presumably in order to establish his legacy: his new probation system is set to be in place by April next year (i.e. a month before the next general election).

His plans have already led to the termination of a successful local probation scheme in Peterborough, which led to an 11 per cent drop in re-offending among short-term prisoners.

4. Cutting legal aid for prisoners

The government’s legal aid cuts have been widely criticised for impacting on some of the most vulnerable members of society. One aspect of the cuts is that they will take legal aid away from prisoners who find themselves in a vulnerable situation.

Legal aid will still be available in cases where the prisoner’s liberty is at stake, but will no longer be available for cases where the prisoner wishes to challenge aspects of their detention. When commenting on this change, Grayling has tried to play up a tabloid-style “prisons are holiday camps” narrative, saying that “there will be no more legal aid available because you don’t like your prison”.

However, these kind of cases don’t usually involve a simple issue of the prisoner not liking their imprisonment; they can involve prisoners with mental health issues who are not getting the treatment they need, disabled prisoners, women prisoners who have recently given birth and who are separated from their babies, and children who get caught up in the justice system.

Unfortunately, a challenge to the decision to cut legal aid for prisoners was rejected by the High Court last month.

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