I predict a riot

No, not the irritating Kaiser Chiefs song, a real riot. The revelations that up to 15,000 jobs, and 22% of the budget, is probably going to be slashed from the Ministry of Justice – which runs prisons in England and Wales – started that little ditty running around my head again.

We were asked at a Public Finance roundtable several months back, before the Election where the ‘pressure points’ would be when the cuts started, and I said – ‘Prisons’.

Prisons are already overcrowded and the Prison Service has been doing a frankly heroic job in trying to stop things getting so dire that they erupt into riots again, as they have in the past. Conditions have, in some respects anyway, improved in the last 15-20 years – the disgusting ‘slopping out’ has gone, for example. But the relentless rise in Prison numbers has caused enormous friction in the system. Prisoners are moved about to try and maximise space, solving one problem – overcrowding – by creating another – disgruntled prisoners often being shoved from pillar to post and back again, sometimes hundreds of miles from friends and family.

The chances of serious rehabilitation work fades as prisoners are never in the same place long enough to complete programmes, and staff time is absorbed in constant removals.

Prisons was always a prime candidate for cuts – not because it is massively overspending (it isn’t) or because it is unnecessary (it has to carry out the sentences of the Courts), but because no-one cares much about them – until there’s a riot, or a serious escape.

The Coalition government’s Damascene conversion to a more enlightened incarceration policy is of course to be welcomed, but there is a huge danger it will be used as a further excuse to prematurely slash prison spending before prison numbers start to drop. It wouldn’t be the first time that the Ministry responsible, and the Treasury, made over-optimistic forecasts and then went ahead with spending decisions regardless of the reality.

Back in the aftermath of the sacking of Derek Lewis as DG of Prisons in 1995, I was on the Review that was set up to look into the management of prisons. One idea I put forward was that Prisons should be funded by a per capita mechanism, thus ensuring that as the prison population rose, or fell, funding would be automatically adjusted. This is a system used, at least partially, in several other countries. Not surprisingly, both the Home Office (then responsible for prisons) and the Treasury were not impressed although some of the HMPS management were interested. Of course, nothing came of it.

Today such a mechanism would ensure that the prisons budget wasn’t prematurely slashed before numbers reduce. Instead, they almost certainly will be, and the pressure cooker will be pushed closer to the point of exploding, again. If, or more likely when, it happens don’t be surprised.

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