Editorial: Rhetoric and Reality in Penal Reform

Published 15/12/2015
Type Editorial Comment
Author(s) Paul Senior
Corresponding Authors Paul Senior, Sheffield Hallam University

It is remarkable how much excitement a prime minister talking about prison creates in the penal lobby. Claiming 20 years since a PM had spoken on the topic and yet with no recognition that he has been PM for well over five years of that time promises of reform abound in his speech.

‘I believe prison reform should be a great progressive cause in British politics, and (I) set out my vision for a modern, more effective, truly twenty-first century prison system.’ (Cameron, 2016)

Stirring words but given the government obsession with austerity this cannot be an announcement with extra money to improve this barren part of our creaking and frankly unacceptably failing penal system. The main irony lies in the fact that it is arguable that it is the Government’s own policies amid public sector cost cutting which has placed the prison system in such jeopardy. The language of rehabilitation and reform are replete though throughout the speech:

‘we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed.’ (Cameron, 2016)

This has been the rhetorical tone of most criminal justice change in the last five years including the ill-fated TR (Transforming Rehabilitation) programme producing a bifurcated and hapless set of arrangements for probation. As Dunt suggests the installation of Chris Grayling as Justice Secretary ‘who ran a mind-bogglingly wrong-headed penal policy.’ (Dunt, 2016) has sent the prison system in a decidedly wrong direction under Cameron. Rather than support the good practice ideas which had fledging potential under Kenneth Clarke in the early Coalition Government of 2010, the removal of Clarke and five years under Grayling feels like a salvage operation is now urgently required for a system on its knees – job cuts, staffing crises (number of full-time public sector prison staff fell by 29% between March 2010 and Dec 2014), absence of employability activities within the prison, scandals in parts of the system, inmates in constant lock ups, little or no education, increased suicides, increased numbers, overcrowding – tackling all these issues may be needed first before growth and development can be achieved. Indeed with a disarming distancing Cameron appears to recognise the parlous state of the prison system:

‘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.’

‘Prisons aren’t a holiday camp – not really. They are often miserable, painful environments. Isolation. Mental anguish. Idleness. Bullying. Self-harm. Violence. Suicide. These aren’t happy places. It’s lazy to subscribe to the idea that prisoners are somehow having the time of their lives. These establishments are full of damaged individuals.’ (Cameron, 2016)

Most commentators have focused on this apparent dissonance between the impact of the government’s own policies and the apparent concern of the PM to tackle the very problems that they have been culpable in creating. Can tinkering at the margins really deal with the systematic problems at the heart of delivering a prison system which appears broken and unable to cope even in survival mode rather than ready for the expansion and transformation suggested – ‘we can be world leaders in change’ (Cameron, 2016), particularly when there appears to be no resources to achieve such changes?

Two key policy reforms on prisons have been expressed by most critiques of this speech as prerequisites for any tinkering of the current system to have any impact at all – sentencing reform and acceptance of the need for enhancement of budgets to return prison to a functioning operation. In the past 20 years only Kenneth Clarke recognised that reducing the prison population was not only the right way to go but doing so would create the space to do something effective with those that remained behind. But Cameron has to produce answers whilst reiterating the rhetoric which has effectively neutered any attempts to achieve such reductions since the 1980s. This is dismissed:

‘you won’t hear me arguing to neuter judges’ sentencing powers or reduce their ability to use prison when it is required.’ (Cameron, 2016).

Politically this is no surprise as the need to maintain this rhetorical hawkish response has echoed around the system and the occasional progressive ministers such as Whitelaw and more recently Clarke have rarely survived this punitive lobby long. It is surprising that Cameron appears to be claiming that the executive must not interfere with the judiciary and maintain this independence which the British legal system would claim is at the heart of the system. Yet calls since Thatcher and including Blair as well as Cameron for tougher sentencing has fundamentally changed the sentencing practices of sentencers. More people go to prison for longer and this has undoubtedly almost doubled the prison numbers in that time. The claim that most prisoners need to be there which accompanies this rhetoric is not borne out by the evidence from the penal lobby and the voluntary sector working in prisons or prison research itself. One commentator on this speech put it simply:

‘For 80 per cent of our current prison population, prison is a bad idea. They are there not because they are a danger to the public, but because they are socially inadequate.’ (Treadwell, 2016)

There are many that simply do not need to be there. Even an arch right wing state such as Texas in USA can reduce its prison population drastically becomes the economics demanded it, it is a politically viable option with no evidence that this will produce a more lawless community. Cameron at one level appears to see this argument:

‘the truth is that simply warehousing ever more prisoners is not financially sustainable, nor is it necessarily the most cost-effective way of cutting crime.’ (Cameron, 2016)

Actions – such as restricting the inappropriate use of custody – though do not follow through on this rhetoric. Beyond the needless use of custody there is the inappropriate use of custody for those with mental health issues, for most women, for most young offenders. Well-rehearsed evidenced arguments from Corston, from Bradley and from youth justice support this necessary plank of reform. The growing critique of the failure of the prison system highlighted by the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prison, Nick Hardwicke, are an indictment on five years of worsening policies and practice in the prison system.

‘It remains my view that staff shortages, overcrowding and the wider policy changes described in this report have had a significant impact on prison safety.’ (Hardwicke, quoted in Dunt, 2016)

Yet Cameron attempts a new conjuring trick. He seemingly acknowledges this situation but omits to make a direct link and then focuses on four strands drawn from his government’s wider approach to social welfare which describe for him his successful reform of other public sector agencies:

’One: give much greater autonomy to the professionals who work in our public services, and allow new providers and new ideas to flourish… Two: hold these providers and professionals to account with real transparency over outcomes… Three: intervene decisively and dramatically to deal with persistent failure, or to fix the underlying problems people may have… Four: use the latest behavioural insights evidence and harness new technology to deliver better outcomes.’ (Cameron, 2016)

It is beyond the scope of this editorial to analyse each element but this myopia about the negative impact of such approaches belies this apparent reform agenda. Drawing on these ‘successes’ the solution is to give autonomy to the prison governor in the style of school academies. As he states:

‘We are going to give prison governors unprecedented operational and financial autonomy, and be trusted to get on and run their jail in the way they see fit. They’ll be given a budget and total discretion over how to spend it.’ Cameron, 2016)

This autonomy may well be welcomed by governors whose autonomy has been severely neutered over the past 20 years. But with freedom, in this government, comes negative accountability. So league tables, outcome based metrics of assessment will dominate and in this situation governors may well become motivated not on reformative goals per se but how their prison can hit government outcomes to secure resources. These perverse outcomes may not change the overall climate except perhaps to the six new reform prisons which will no doubt be subtly resourced to give a sheen of success.

Even if reform can be achieved in the prison system it is crucial that the period following release is effectively handled. In a strange alliance a joint article by Gove and Grayling points to the solution here:

‘We radically reformed the probation service so when offenders leave prison they are given the best possible support to return to society and start to rebuild their lives; making a contribution rather than going back to criminality.’ (Gove and Grayling, 2016)

The next issue of BJCJ (14:1), to be published in late April, will focus on the impact of TR and seek to look forward to probation in 2020 ( It is right to make the connection between what goes on in prison and effective community reintegration. Much research points to the crucial nature of this link. But asserting the success of such reintegration is not the same as achieving it. The jury is out in this yet as the jury surely must be on Cameron’s grand ideas for prison reform!

There are four articles in this edition which tackle diverse aspects of criminal justice.

Steele applies the logic of rational choice decision making to a sample of offenders to explore how far decisions to commit crime are reflective of this theoretical orientation. The study reveals a rather more varied motivational scheme behind decides to offend. These implications are interrogated. Given that each individual will be operating under differing environments with differing motivations and levels of stress, then the author argues the decision making landscape of each individual will be unique.

Lowe et al. focus on the needs of victims in criminal justice asking key questions about the degree of access that victims actually have to support services such as Victim Support following the commission of a crime. This study which took place in 2013-14 reveals a low take up of around 2% in the study area and little impact on revictimisation. The study highlights the nature of support for victims at a time of reduced resources and changes from central government to PCCs in handling these services.

Turner and Johnston examine the release and aftercare of female prisoners in England during the late nineteenth century reflecting upon aftercare and residential provision for women leaving prison. The research uncovers a rather different experience of release from those coming out of local prisons for which a quick return either to prison, workhouse or homelessness was a constant vicious cycle to those released from convict prisons in London and the South East who through Victorian philanthropy could be supported into new work roles such as domestic servitude. A fascinating exploration which has relevance for our treatment of women today leaving prison.

Crassati and Quarty report on research on the frequency and nature of third party disclosures on registered sex offenders in five London boroughs, with reference to the method of disclosure, the outcome, and subsequent offence failures. The authors point to the importance of disclosure and its potential as a powerful tool for risk management, highlighting the crucial areas of public protection and the needs of victims. This study provided an opportunity to ensure that disclosure decisions are consistent across areas and between agencies, and raises good practice ideas to ensure positive outcomes for both offenders and victims.


Cameron, D. (2016) ‘Prison reform: Prime Minister’s speech’ 8th February 2016. (Accessed 16/02/16)
Dunt, I. (2016) ‘Prison crisis: Cameron brands his own record ‘shameful’‘. (Accessed 16/02/16)
Gove, M. and Grayling C. (2016) ‘We’re getting smart on crime, not going soft’. The Telegraph, 13th February 2016.
Treadwell, J. (2016) ‘Cameron’s prison pronouncements lack real commitment’ on 9th February 2016.