By Adam Cunnane
I actually quite like Michael Gove.
Now, for those of you still with me (I can appreciate a substantial exodus may have been sparked by the above), I will explain why. I understand that, for some time, the left has viewed liking Michael Gove as tantamount to hating human rights or refusing to fully support gay marriage (Tim Farron take note on the latter). However, discussions over our exit of the Human Rights Act notwithstanding, it is very easy to like Gove for the prison reforms he intends to introduce.
The problem stems from the fact that many left-wingers (myself formerly included) are so diametrically opposed to the idea of praising a Tory strategy, that they become blinded to the clear merits of Gove’s new plan.
Even as a Labour supporter, it should be apparent that Gove’s reforms are more ‘left-wing’ than those enacted by many on the traditional left.
Firstly, decentralisation and the devolution of autonomy to prison governors will allow greater local control over where budgets are spent. This will surely allow for greater innovation and for Tim Allen, Governor of HMP Durham, it will help strengthen the position of education as his main priority.
Gove has rallied against the idea that “prisons are not playing their part in rehabilitating offenders” and has thus spoken of bringing businesses into prison to provide work for offenders on their release. As Tim Allen tells me, this will reinforce the inherent links between prisons and communities, allowing prisoners the best chance of rehabilitation. These links are indeed already burgeoning in Durham with, for example, the Inside Out programme, which allows Criminology students to take one of their modules inside the prison.
Secondly, and, with extension, Gove seems to be more attuned to the realities of desistance theory (ideas about how to reduce reoffending rates) than many of his predecessors. His concept of earned release seems likely to imbue prisoners with the “ethos, culture and values” that Allen argues they require to survive outside of prison. Allen further highlights how, in his role as prison governor, he tries to engender prisoners with the desire to serve their community through education; Gove’s reforms will further complement this by cultivating a more skilled prisoner population who will thus be more likely to contribute to society and not transgress its rules.
Whether Gove will eventually seek to privatise prisons should also be considered. To my mind, introducing the profit margin into prisons seems to open the door to a more cynical motivation: greed. Surely prison standards in privatised prisons will slip if the driving factor behind prison development is a thirst for money? Well, not really.
As Allen explains, both nationalised and privatised prisons need to be “efficient” and to exercise “effective spending,” as both types of prisons need to be as successful as possible.
It thus seems that, apart from an inherent ideological aversion to privatisation, we have nothing to fear in the possible privatisation of some prisons, if this will allow for greater innovation and possibly lower reoffending rates.
Gove told us in his recent speech to the Prisoners Learning Alliance that “45% of adult prisoners re-offend within one year of release”, with this figure rising to two-thirds for under 18s. He also recognises that “Prison is a place where people are sent as a punishment, not for further punishments”, making me consider, with extension, the benefits of prisoner enfranchisement.
Allen tells me that anything that will allow released prisoners to conform to the law in future is a good thing and allowing prisoners to vote may well help vanquish any burgeoning apathy with the political system and society at large.
If a loss of freedom is punishment enough, the vote should be extended to prisoners. This could firstly start with prisoners who are serving sentences for smaller crimes and the impact upon sky-high re-offending rates should be explored.
Bill Bryson (I think they named a library after him somewhere… not sure where though) remarked in his latest book that Gove would be the one thing he would like to remove from the UK. So, it is with a heavy heart, that I argue that Gove’s plans for decentralisation, earned release and better prisoner education, mean he is shaping up to be one of the best Justice Ministers this country has had.
Even if it is tragically ironic that Conservative cuts to tax credits will exacerbate the social problems that lead to crime. I think we’ve been wasting too much energy hating the wrong Conservative minister.
Photograph: Isabelle Pallier