Prisons on the cheapFebruary 21, 2009 at 10:12 pm | Posted in British Politics, Prison Reform | 6 Comments
I suppose there have been worse custodians in its history, but if you were to rank government ministers of the past ten years according to the harm they’ve inflicted on the prison service, Jack Straw would come out on top. Since assuming the role just two years ago, Straw has overseen dangerous overcrowding, planned to solve it by building a series of megajails which every reform group in the country has condemned, and then attacked his critics with the old lie that they don’t care about victims of crime.
He’s refused to give prisoners the right to vote despite being legally obliged to do so, he’s produced policies of pure populist junk (having the public vote on a criminal’s punishment or publicly humiliating offenders) and has run his department like a pandering control freak, eager to interfere in any aspect of the criminal justice system which the Tory tabloids are upset about. But perhaps the most damaging legacy of Straw’s time as Justice Minister has been his continuation of the government’s mad delusion that the prison service can be run on the cheap.
This week, the 25,000 members who make up the Prison Officers Association rejected a new pay deal from the government. Under Labour’s proposed ‘workforce modernisation programme’, existing prison officers would’ve recieved a 4.75% pay rise, but the plans would’ve also created a new tier of prison officers, who would’ve been paid less and given fewer responsibilities. The POA’s members rejected the government’s offer because at a time when they are already overstretched and undervalued, they could not accede to a plan which would open the door for the deskilling of a profession where skilled, experienced officers are essential. Prisons would become more dangerous, prisoners would be less safe and the public would be exposed to greater risk when they’re eventually released.
Responding to the prison officers’ discontent, Straw threatened to make them irrelevant by giving a greater role in managing prisons to the private sector, where officers are already paid less, have fewer responsibilities and less experience, leading to pretty ugly consequences. In this pay deal, as with the policy of creating Titan prisons and the part privatisation of the system, the government’s guiding principle seems to be ‘how cheaply can prisons be run?’, when it should be asking ‘how can they be run most effectively?’
Prisons should be expensive to run. They should be full of well-trained and well-paid wardens, medics, mental health professionals and educators. They should be able to stop the smuggling of drugs, reduce cases of suicide and self-harm and generally give prisoners enough opportunities to rehabilitate themselves that they have no excuse for returning to the crime which put them in jail in the first place. By rejecting this pay deal, the Prison Officer’s Association are sticking to that principle; it’s just a shame that they seem to be fighting a losing battle.