Open Letter to Muchael Gove published in the Guardian 22 May 2105
Dear Michael Gove,
One of the pleasant surprises I got while banged up in Belmarsh was a letter from you expressing sympathy and solidarity. Like many MPs who know the truth of the events that led me to prison, and the double standards of one MP and the then director of public prosecutions, you extended a hand of friendship. This was based, I assume, on our common intellectual interest and our talks over the years about the need to understand and confront some of the evil ideologies – such as antisemitism and Islamism – that have become so modish this century.
So although I am now well out of politics, except to argue for Britain’s place in Europe, I was delighted at your appointment. Prison reform was once the glory of the do-gooding English, including many reformist liberal Tories. Sadly today, despite the heroic efforts of Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform and other charities, the reformers seem to have no impact on policy. I hope you can change that.
The prison disaster is well known from the reports of Nick Hardwick: ever increasing suicides and little rehabilitation
The British prison disaster is well known from the reports of the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick: ever-increasing suicides and little rehabilitation, with up to 70% of released prisoners back inside within 12 months. The treatment of young offenders at Rainsbook detention centre is the latest revelation of the shameful way we treat those sent inside. Prison staff morale is low. At £14bn, the cost is enormous.
The root cause is the massive increase in prison numbers in the last two decades. Under Margaret Thatcher there were 40,000 prisoners. Like you, she was hardly a bleeding-heart liberal. Yet she did not share the obsession of her successors with mass incarceration. Under David Cameron, UK prisoner numbers are touching 86,000. In the first week of his new premiership, prison numbers increased by 100. Do the maths. What will this be after five more years! This is far higher than equivalent European democracies, which have similar levels of crime but do not seem to need to put so many people inside at such cost to taxpayers.
In the first four years of the coalition government, 1,073 new criminal offences were created. This adds to the 4,300 new crimes in the 13 years of the Labour government before 2010. I was pleased at the announcement that women could no longer be sent to prison over nonpayment of the BBC licence fee. Many inside are there because of debt, just as in Dickens’ time.
No party dares to ask if our judges are adequately trained or are capable of rethinking their pro-prison prejudices. The Tory manifesto wants judges to face challenges if they are considered to have sentenced too leniently. This is an open door to atavistic tabloid editors to create a storm over any sentence they don’t like, and will further press prison-junkie judges to send more inside for longer, with more pressure on the dysfunctional Crown Prosecution Service to initiate prosecutions rather than say that many add nothing to public safety.
No one is willing to make money available to help educate or rehabilitate prisoners, or stop so many being sent in
Your party’s manifesto called for “a semi-custodial sentence allowing for a short, sharp spell in custody to change behaviour”. There is no explanation of what “semi-custodial” means, but it suggests yet more men and women put inside. Far from changing behaviour, most prisons are universities of crime, riddled with drugs and mobile phones smuggled in by staff.
As an author yourself, I know you won’t repeat the fatuous policy of your predecessor of banning books being sent to prisoners. But why did I have to steal paper and pens inside Belmarsh even to scribble diary notes?
There don’t seem to be any MPs up for serious prison reform. No one wants to ask if the mass incarceration policy of the last 20 years really works and why it is so costly. No one is willing to make money available to help educate or rehabilitate prisoners, to stop so many being sent in or to help those released recover work and dignity.
Now you have as your shadow Charlie Falconer, who likes ideas and reading books just as much as you do. Can you meet him privately – maybe at The Clink, the excellent Brixton prison restaurant – and decide to declare a truce so that both of you work to change the mass incarceration policy in place since the mid-90s? You can drop infantile populist attacks on Labour, and Falconer should welcome any serious efforts to reduce prison numbers without headline-seeking accusations of being soft on crime. Go on: there is no need to make party politics out of prisons.
Sadly, unless policy changes, prisons in 2015-2020 are going to be in an as bad, if not worse, state than they are now – with more people inside, more suicides, and little hope of recidivism reducing. You can make a difference. Will you?