Labour should pay attention to prisons

By Adam Cunnane

Fun quiz question for you. Who is the Shadow Justice Minister? I could (but won’t) offer a generous prize to the winner, such is my surety that very few people would be able to tell me his name. Prior to writing this article, I certainly couldn’t. And this seems to me quite odd; how is this person slipping under the radar?

Go on then; our Shadow Justice Minister is Lord Falconer. Sure to score zero points on a future episode of Pointless that asks you to name Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. Indeed, whilst Michael Gove is attempting to rescue our prison system from the quicksand of government apathy and narrow-mindedness, in which it has become mired, it seems that Lord Falconer is missing in action.

A quick google search and use of autocomplete (hardly a bastion of impartiality, I know), suggests that Lord Falconer has been struggling to make this role his own. More google searches have inquired more into his weight loss than anything he has done as Shadow Justice Minister. The fifth most common search for Michael Gove, however, links him to his role at the Ministry of Justice. Clearly, Gove, unlike Falconer, has begun to create an association between himself and justice within the popular consciousness.

As Gove is burning down the city, and seeking to replace it with a new, more efficient system, Lord Falconer is fiddling as it burns. His criticisms of Gove’s recent policies have been apathetic and lazy. Yet to understand them, we perhaps first need to understand what Gove is proposing. As I mentioned in a previous article (19th November 2015), 46% of prisoners will reoffend before a year is out. Cameron thus argued in a recent speech to the Policy Exchange that “people’s life chances are most absent” within prisons, and I have no reason to disagree with him. To combat this, Gove intends to introduce “reform prisons” that will allow new initiatives, seeking to bring down reoffending rates. Moreover, for younger prisoners, YOIs (Young Offenders Institutions) will be replaced with secure academies that will put greater focus on education, as opposed to punishment. This reorientation of purpose, by giving prisoners something to work towards, will hopefully liberate them from the vicious cycle of reoffending.

Gove thankfully does not intend to stop there. Cameron has informed us that there is a minimum of one suicide and “almost 600 incidents of self-harm” within prisons every week. Alcohol and drugs will therefore be clamped down upon, given as they may fuel problems such as mental illness for some prisoners. With 49% of prisoners suffering from mental health problems, Gove will aim to remove those who are seriously ill, whilst governors will be encouraged to work with the NHS to better meet the needs of mentally ill prisoners. Thus, Gove has identified the main problems within our prison system, and his wide-ranging reforms will surely increase the rights of prisoners, as well as their potential to make the most of their life upon release.

But… hold the front door. Drifting in and out of the shadows, Lord Falconer has eventually come forward with some constructive criticisms. This should be good. What flaw has he unearthed within Gove’s plans, which will see the whole edifice come crumbling down? I knew those Tories were too good to be true; they only pretend to care, right? Yet, Falconer’s official announcement about the reforms was petty and uninteresting. Though he did condemn overcrowding, which was constructive in a sense, he tried to imbue the reforms with a sense of scepticism. He argued that “we have heard similar promises before [from the coalition]” and, given that the previous government failed to deliver a “rehabilitation revolution”, it is unlikely that this government will do so. However, this seems to me like a logical fallacy; we cannot conflate the policies of Chis Grayling, the former Justice Minister, with those of Michael Gove. They are clearly diametrically opposed, and Lord Falconer knows this. With Gove at Justice, we have his genuine desire to reform, which contrasts totally with anything advocated by his predecessor. What’s more, this argument merely deserves to blur the very important issues that Gove has been raising.

Lord Falconer needs to gain authority in his new role quickly. By the time this article has been published, perhaps he will have gone some way to making the position his own. Yet, I find it unlikely. Gary Copson and Laura Bates in recent Guardian articles have suggested the importance of dealing with prison literacy and the neglect of domestic and sexual violence services within prisons. These areas, along with the enfranchisement of prisoners, are something Falconer could be focussing on. If Labour is destined to slowly fade away, as many have recently argued, I would urge them, and especially Falconer, in the words of Dylan Thomas, not to go gentle into the good night. Go down fighting.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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