At last it would appear that the Ministry of Justice has changed it’s philosophy and decided to limit admittance to prisons. At least that is the case for Frances Crook, CEO of the Howard League for Penal Reform, who received a rather snide letter from the Ministry of Justice revoking a previous invitation issued by G4S to visit two of their privately run prisons.
Frances Crook was initially invited to visit Oakwood, and Birmingham prisons before the Ministry of Justice recommended that the invitations be rescinded. The Howard League for Penal Reform has been a vocal opponent of privately run prisons, Crook stating, “that making money out of punishing people is both reprehensible and immoral”.
The 14 privately run prisons in the UK do however take £500 million of taxpayers’ money each year. It is therefore an imperative that they are open to scrutiny and accountable for their conditions and performance, not only to Government but the public at large.
With fears that the prison estate has descended to the levels of decay seen 25 years ago, the time that Lord Woolf investigated the Strangeways riot, and riots in 20 other prisons. Regardless of the public or privately run distinction, the prison system in its entirety must be transparent and recognise the issues it currently faces, or a major incident, such as the aforementioned riots, may be the first point at which notice is taken; which is far too late for those affected.
Aside from the use of taxpayers’ money to fund privately run prisons, there is another imperative to enable transparency and accountability. For those who are not classified as dangerous, the infliction of punishment should serve a greater purpose than incapacitation. This therefore implies some form of positive action on behalf of the prison estate to achieve this purpose, put simply as rehabilitation. The mechanisms in place to achieve this must therefore be open to scrutiny, or a general acceptance of the ‘warehousing’ of the undesirable criminal class may prevail.
Frances Crook argues:
“Report after report by the chief inspector of prisons and by independent monitors have told how people are locked in their cells with nothing to do for weeks on end and that violence is rising. If we treat people like this we cannot expect them to emerge into the community magically transformed into law-abiding citizens.”
This is exactly the point. Prisons are necessarily secluded, secretive, and segregated institutions, few people outside the employment of the Prison Service have regular access to observe the practices contained therein.
It is therefore very disappointing to have an invitation put forward by G4S, who, to its credit, has made an attempt at transparency in spite of the Howard League’s attempts to have the Serious Fraud Office pursue the investigation into the companies accused of fraud in the electronic tagging scandal.
The Ministry of Justice has not come out of this with much dignity, appearing petty at best for suggesting that the visits would not be appropriate at this time given Frances Crook’s previous comments about private prisons. If a reasoned but dissenting voice is sufficient to render their presence inappropriate, then the system will crumble from within.