In the slightly odd language of British officialdom, the chief executive of HM Prisons and Probation Service has been asked by the Ministry of Justice to stand aside because his agency requires fresh leadership. Sacked, in other words. After nine tough years in one of the least attractive of so many unattractive roles in today’s austerity-era public services, Mr Spurr’s sentence is up. 

The proximate reasons for his removal – which will actually take effect next March – may not be difficult to guess at. Damning report after damning report about the reality of prison life in Britain made Mr Spurr’s position untenable. The revelations about HMP Birmingham from the chief inspector of prisons were especially damning – the stench of cannabis and spice (synthetic cannabis) was so intense that the chief inspector himself, Peter Clarke, couldn’t breathe. Apparently the lags are now running HMP Bedford – and, who knows, may be making a better job of it – and a substantial contingent of sex offenders were accidently released from HMP Dartmoor. Whatever else, Mr Spurr may have some trouble polishing his CV.

Of course, he should take his share of the blame. However, in fairness to him and, more vitally, for the purposes of putting things right, we do not know precisely what share that should be. The usually open and straightforward prions minister, Rory Stewart, has refused to conduct a proper inquiry into the state of the British prison system, and so we are left wondering not about the scale of the crisis – that is apparent – but its root causes. A change in leadership at the top of the Prisons and Probation Service may well help matters, but common sense suggests that all will not be well just because Mr Spurr is leaving his post. Other factors are at work.

It is difficult, for example, to avoid the question of funding. As a result of cuts to budgets since 2010, whatever the arguments for repairing the public finances, there are about 7,000 fewer prison officers, supervising officers and custodial managers working in England and Wales. The figure of 5,000 is defined narrowly to prison officers. Their pay has suffered the same restraint as the rest of the public sector, and conditions have evidently become even worse. The potency of new synthetic drugs and the ease of smuggling via drones have proved formidable challenges for the shrinking ranks of prison officers. 

Nor has the prison service enjoyed much in the way of investment since those grand Victorian gaols, many still in use, were constructed. Overcrowding was commonplace by the 1970s, and few new prisons have lived up to their promise as they too quickly become filled to capacity and beyond. Only the ending of “slopping out” can be said to be a positive change in prison conditions in recent decades. For the rest, it has been a more or less continual descent into depravity and, ironically but predictably enough, lawlessness.

Of course, many prisoners are still not allowed to vote, but even if they were they would not make up a very large constituency. By their nature, the press and public tend to be unsympathetic to their plight. Newspaper columnists can still make a tidy living from writing fiction about prisoners tucking into regular steak dinners dropped by drone and conditions akin to holiday camps or enjoyed by the mafia bosses depicted in Goodfellas. 

In fact, British prisons are not renowned for fine dining, and are as dangerous and dehumanising as they have ever been. Apart from a few lifers, the baleful effects of that incarceration are eventually visited once again upon society – not least in terrorist radicalisation. 

In other words, reoffending rates are far too high, few alternatives to custodial sentences are pursued – because of populist political pressure – and the result is more recidivism, more violence, more burglary, more crime generally and more emotional and financial costs loaded onto peaceful citizens when offenders are released. It is a classic example of a false economy.

Privatisation could have delivered higher standards and better value from the prisons and probation budget, but in practice the experiment has failed too often. Probation contracts are being effectively nationalised in 2020, and the trend towards private prisons should be slowed. Bringing back a traditional sense of public service and discipline to British prisons, as existed before privatisation, may be a part of the answer to the problems the service faces; but funding the training and rehabilitation of offenders is also an essential part of reform. 

Ideally, Mr Stewart would commission a swift review to help frame a new strategy for prisons, as the government has now had to finally concede for the railways (another example of flawed privatisation associated with former justice secretary Chris Grayling). That would provide Mr Spurr’s successor, and the rest of those responsible, a road map to a more humane and stable system. As it is, the new prisons chief will be having to find out what has gone wrong and rectify it in very short order. Mr Stewart, after all, recently declared that he would quit if prisons hadn’t improved in a year’s time. It is rare for a politician to place themselves on probation in such a manner, but entirely appropriate. There is no time to lose.



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