At the Conservative Party Conference 2016, Justice Secretary Liz Truss announced plans to spend an extra £14 million on ten of the “most challenging” prisons, alongside the launch of a campaign to recruit ex-armed forces staff as prison officers.
On the surface of it, that might seem like an elegant solution to the twin problems of, first, how to support failing prisons and, second, how to provide jobs for people leaving the armed forces. As Truss herself said: “Who better to instil the virtues of discipline? Who better to show what you can achieve in life with courage and integrity?”
Whose Line is it Anyway?
Something that wasn’t mentioned in her speech is that the idea isn’t a new one. It has already been tried, admittedly some time ago, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Then, prison reformers asserted that employing ex-servicemen to run prisons would ensure staff who were disciplined, reliable, and knew how to follow orders, even under pressure. The regime was to be authoritarian – implicitly, “to instil the virtues of discipline” – and was intended to bring about reform.
Just last year, then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling introduced the “Transforming Rehabilitation” prison reforms programme; it’s worth noting that Truss’s recent announcement was made at the same time a report – conducted by the Chief Inspector of Probation and the Chief Inspector of Prisons – was made public, highlighting the shortcomings of Grayling’s reforms. The report said: “Inspectors found that, overall, services were poor and there was little to commend. Too many prisoners reached their release date without their immediate resettlement needs having been met or even recognised.”
Frances Crook, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Transforming Rehabilitation was supposed to turn lives around, reduce reoffending and make us all safer. It is doing precisely the opposite – failing to help people find homes and employment, failing to prevent people committing further offences and failing by exposing victims of crime to more danger.”
Discipline Vs. Rehabilitation
The issue here is rehabilitation; the question of discipline in prison would seem to be less of an issue than the Justice Secretary might have people believe, and it’s fair to ask whether solving the issue of providing employment for ex-service personnel by taking them on as prison officers will really do anything to address the demonstrable failure of current prison policies.
It seems that what is needed in the prison service is a mix of knowledge, experience and maturity, coupled with an understanding of the system – both its strengths and its weaknesses. An obvious solution would be to take on locum prison officers, who bring exactly those attributes to the table.
While they might be a bit more expensive to employ than a new officer who needs to be trained in all aspects of the job, it must surely be a false economy to fail to make use of individuals with both the experience and the skills, knowledge and abilities to make a positive difference – especially in the face of the challenges confronting the prison service.