View from the right: Michael Gove – the man to turn around our failing prisons?

Since the general election there has been much discussion around the dismal state of UK prisons and anxieties about how best to rehabilitate prisoners. Justice Secretary Michael Gove has called for an end to the “idleness and futility” of prison life. It is time to put this into action.

The common route to prison is well understood. In 2002 Oliver Letwin wrote about a “conveyor belt to crime,” noting that family breakdown, a violent home, living in an environment where crime is a normalised activity and abuse and addiction all make crime harder to avoid. The data backs this up – today a quarter of all prisoners in the UK were taken into care as children, two-fifths witnessed domestic violence as children and 60% regularly played truant at school. Gove may not be in a position to get to the root of this but he is a in a position to ensure that the belief of redemption – that people have the ability to change and better themselves – is central to our prison system.

In order to do this some of our prisons must be knocked down and redesigned so that they become not just places for housing convicts but also centres that offer advice, guidance and learning programmes. Cramped buildings where inmates need to be locked up at times when they could be learning crucial life skills are not up to scratch.

Last week Gove vowed to close down “ageing and ineffective” Victorian jails and sell of their sites to fund new buildings to replace them. He has referred to Pentonville prison as the “most dramatic example of failure within the prison estate” pointing to a Chief Inspector’s report which said that the jail, which opened in 1842, should hold 900 prisoners, but now houses 1,300. According to the report the prison has bloodstained walls, piles of rubbish and food waste, increasing levels of violence and widespread drug taking. Although the question of how much these new prisons will take to build still remains uncertain this initiative must be welcomed.

But the key to this sort of transformation is education. Prisons, like schools, must be “engines of social responsibility”. About half of prisoners have no qualifications, compared to 15% of the working-age population and about half (presumably the same half) are functionally illiterate. Few prisoners have internet access. Without basic skills and qualifications it is easy to see why we still have a woefully high rate of re-offending (around 45%).

Many prisoners are desperate to engage in education programmes and recognise that this is a major route to bettering themselves and one day becoming employable bringing positive contributions to society. Gove must ensure that prisoners have the right incentives to learn and prison staff make education a firm priority. In addition to this governors need to be given the right tools to be more demanding and creative about the education provided in the prisons they run.

Just as Iain Duncan Smith reformed the Conservative approach to welfare reform by making clear that fiscal good sense can go hand in hand with social responsibility and compassion Gove has the chance to show that keeping the public safe and punishing people for crimes they have committed can go hand in hand with compassionate rehabilitation.