An Open Letter To Michael Gove

TPQ is pleased to see Alex Cavendish return back from illness with a an open letter to Michael Gove. A former prisoner, Alex Cavendish blogs @ Prison UK: an Insider's View

Rt Hon Michael Gove MP
Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Dear Mr Gove,

As a former prisoner who writes regularly about prison and its impacts I thought I’d share a few thoughts with you and thousands of readers via my blog. You’ve had a couple of months in your new post as Secretary of State for Justice so perhaps now is the time to start thinking about how the current crisis – and it is a serious crisis – in our prisons can be addressed.

In your recent comments, both during your appearance before the Justice Select Committee and in your address to the Prisoner Learning Alliance, you have spoken encouragingly of the need for change within the prison system. In particular, you expressed the view that prisoners should be seen as “potential assets” rather than as liabilities. You have also emphasised the importance and value of education within our prisons, backing this up with the welcome announcement that restrictions on prisoners receiving books from family and friends are soon to be lifted.

While all of this is very positive – particularly following the nightmare years of your unlamented predecessor Chris Grayling – you undoubtedly have an uphill battle to fight if you really are committed to reforming our prisons. In part this is due to decades of under-investment in both buildings and people – policies that began long before you (or I, for that matter) had any involvement with the criminal justice system. However, there are also conflicting underlying cultures that will need to be addressed if sustainable reform is ever to be achieved.

The first question that I think you will need to reflect upon is what is the actual purpose of imprisonment. It is first and foremost a punishment for offences committed, but one of the declared objectives of the Prison Service is to facilitate reform and rehabilitation. I think you are by now well aware of the fact that the present system is unfit for purpose, as evidenced by the most recent annual report issued by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. 

As things stand, our prisons do not – and indeed cannot – deliver against the Prison Service’s own stated aims beyond providing unsustainably expensive human warehousing from which many individuals emerge back into the community at least as dangerous, disturbed, distressed or disruptive as they were when they were committed to custody by the courts, in some cases even more so. The reality is that, in far too many cases, there has been no attempt at rehabilitation whatsoever. In some cases reoffending is a virtual certainty.

My advice is not to be misled into becoming too focused on physical conditions in prisons. In my time as a prisoner I experienced a range of modern establishments and decrepit Victorian-era piles. Beyond basic safety and hygiene the bricks and mortar are much less relevant than the key issues of overcrowding and understaffing. Even a grim red-brick fortress can provide an effective range of educational opportunities and other purposeful activities if it is appropriately staffed, while a brand new state-of-the-art facility can fail monumentally if prisoners are confined to overcrowded cells for 22 or 23 hours each day. This is essentially a question of resources and budget and given that your department is planning further cuts, then reducing the current historically high prison population is probably the most effective means of balancing the books.

Another key issue that demands your urgent attention is low morale among prison staff. Believe me, this is at rock bottom, no matter what others may tell you. A vital question is whether the Prison Service is really recruiting the right sort of people with a high degree of commitment and professionalism – as well as an essential sense of humanity? Once recruited, are they being properly trained? 

I have encountered wing officers who have put their own lives at risk to save prisoners and have shown genuine concern and kindness, but I have also witnessed terrible acts of cruelty and inhumanity, particularly towards elderly, vulnerable prisoners or those living with serious mental illnesses. One of the places that those who have sadistic tendencies should never be permitted to work is prisons. 

An internal culture marked by brutality and contempt can be infectious and a handful of abusive staff members can undermine any efforts at rehabilitation. Too many prisoners come from violent, abusive or neglectful family backgrounds and, at times, the experience of incarceration merely reinforces their distorted views of society. Too many inmates are being bullied and assaulted whilst in the care of the Prison Service – including being subjected to sexual abuse – by fellow prisoners and this also needs to be tackled as a priority.

How many trainee prison officers have ever spoken to an ex-prisoner or had the opportunity to ask them questions? As a practical suggestion, why not involve some articulate former inmates in training sessions, particularly those who have gone on to achieve success after their release? Let new officers meet them and benefit from their wisdom and experience, as well as having personal prejudices concerning prisoners challenged.

Retaining the best officers and prison managers also requires significant investment, as well as offering opportunities for career development. Anyone who is going to spend a significant proportion of their own professional lives locked up behind high walls and barred gates (even if they do have a set of keys) also deserves to be treated as a professional, rather than as demoralised ‘turnkeys’ prowling the landings, spreading misery and contempt in their wake.

Based on my own experience, I can assure you that a little respect goes a long way in prison and too many officers demand respect without behaving in a professional, respectful manner toward those in their care. Surely prison staff should serve as role models capable of defusing tensions and conflicts. Sadly, a substantial minority aren’t. 

Restoring a much higher degree of local autonomy to prison governors as you have suggested recently will be a very welcome reform. Individual senior managers are often best placed to achieve positive change, particularly if the restrictive shackles of bureaucracy can be loosened. Appoint reformers with ideas, rather than faceless civil servants. A degree of risk-taking can be healthy even in a high security environment. My advice is to give governors back the real power to make decisions, recognising that they – like any senior manager in the public service – must also be accountable and take responsibility.

In respect of rehabilitation, I agree that education can and should play a vital role. However, there is also a dangerous tendency towards coercion in prisons that undermines what can be achieved in the classroom or workshop. It’s worth remembering that many prisoners who live with literacy problems have previously failed in school and, as adults, may be fearful and resentful of being coerced back into formal classroom settings. 

Having worked as a peer mentor in prison education departments, my advice is to adopt policies that encourage positive participation and achievement, whether that be academic or vocational. For some prisoners, work assignments in prison – whether as cleaners, wing painters, kitchen staff or in the stores – may be the first regular ‘employment’ they have ever experienced. This presents an opportunity to mirror the job market on the outside and develop relevant skills.

Why not encourage governors to introduce proper recruitment procedures for work assignments that could include help to prepare a written CV and an application? Perhaps a formal interview could take place. Don’t simply let the current culture of ‘jobs for the lads’ – those prisoners who are either over-friendly with or else subservient to officers – continue unchallenged. Why isn’t every new reception to prison asked from the very beginning what they feel they can contribute to the life of the establishment?

Another suggestion is to ensure that education is valued and recognised. Some prisons used to award small cash bonuses to prisoners who gained qualifications and vocational certificates. Why not reintroduce this system across the prison estate? It would represent a relatively modest investment in education as part of the rehabilitation process? Moreover, prisons could consider holding special family visits during which certificates earned could be presented by a governor… or even a government minister.

Every prison has a contingent of well-educated inmates, many of whom will be first time offenders. Why not make better use of their skills and experience by expanding the existing peer mentoring systems across the prison estate? Encourage prison labour boards to match prisoners’ qualifications with mentoring roles, rather than squander such resources. 

Further expansion of the voluntary Toe by Toe adult literacy scheme to encourage individual prisoners to improve their skills should be regarded as a key priority, particularly since it is so cost effective for the taxpayer as it relies on volunteer peer mentors trained and equipped through the Shannon Trust. Not only does this system deliver impressive results, but it also contributes to the sense of achievement of those who offer mentoring while serving their sentences.

Moreover, when prisoners have taken the initiative to enrol in distance learning courses – particularly as these are now funded by the individual or via an education loan – why not count these inmates as being in full-time education and give them study periods paid at the usual rate for classroom attendance, rather than marginalising such activities that can play a major role in reducing reoffending and improving the chance of successful resettlement upon release? 

Another suggestion is to give governing governors more control over education in their respective establishments. This may require reviewing the current Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) arrangements, but I believe that you recognise prison education is much more than ticking boxes and payment by backsides on classroom seats. 

Too many prison education providers recruit cut-price tutors who have failed in classrooms outside – through inexperience, laziness or incompetence – and within a prison setting mediocrity and failure has been tolerated and permitted to thrive for too long. Many more prisoners will respond positively to an inspirational teacher than a bored individual who is sitting at the back reading a newspaper for most of the session. The present arrangements do little to encourage or reward good teaching.

There is also concern that rehabilitation interventions that actually demonstrate positive results in reducing reoffending – such as the Sycamore Tree victim awareness programme – are facing funding cuts by your ministry. Will you undertake to review such decisions personally?

Finally, please don’t allow the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to continue excluding researchers, prison reformers, journalists and fellow politicians from our prisons. The current effective information lockdown, where establishments in England and Wales often appear less accessible than those in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, does our country a serious disservice. Encouraging a greater spirit of openness, as well as wider public awareness of the reality of our prison system, can only assist in your mission if you are genuinely committed to achieving positive change.

I hope that the above reflections might be of interest to you, particularly since they are based on personal experience within our prisons. I would not have written such an open letter as this to Mr Grayling. It would have been attempting to have a dialogue with a concrete wall. However, you have expressed yourself and your ideas with unusual openness and have provoked much interest and debate within the media and among the public. 

You have the chance to tackle the crisis in our prisons and to bring to an end the current culture of failure, waste and hopelessness. Please don’t allow your own enthusiasm for reform to end in disappointment and disillusionment like Ken Clarke’s much-vaunted ‘rehabilitation revolution’ did. I genuinely wish you every success.
Yours sincerely,
Alex Cavendish
Prison UK: an Insider's View

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