It’s time to talk about prisons

We need a serious conversation about how we do justice in Wales. 

Last Thursday morning I gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. My appearance in front of the Committee followed the publication earlier in the week of a troubling and disturbing insight into the life of the prison service in Wales by Cardiff Governance Centre. Reported in today’s Western Mail it makes for some miserable reading. And this report itself follows on the heels of a number of critical reports into the management of the criminal justice system in Wales.

But all too often a debate over the future of penal policy in Wales is reduced to a debate over the location of a prison. Over the Easter recess I published a statement on the Welsh Government’s approach to justice policy. Most journalists saw the immediacy of the story over a proposed “superprison” in Baglan. Without further thought they reported that story whilst ignoring the rest of the statement.

We need to do better than this. 

It is difficult to argue that the way we do criminal justice in Wales is working well. The hard reality is that we have a justice system that is simply not fit for purpose. My view is that we urgently need to develop an approach which focusses on Welsh needs and begins the process of developing a distinctive Welsh penal policy.

For many of us the UK Government’s intransigence over the devolution of justice has been just another one of those sometimes interminable debates that we’ve endured over the last few decades as we struggle towards a stable settlement which allows for the good government of Wales within the United Kingdom. 

In terms of criminal justice we face a situation where the UK Ministry of Justice is unable to deliver its overall policy programme in Wales and where the Welsh Government is also unable to deliver a policy programme. We have the worst of all worlds. And this is entirely due to a settlement rooted in the Conservative Party’s refusal to recognise Wales as having the same rights to good governance as either Scotland or Northern Ireland. Or seemingly even London. 

My view is clear. The current settlement is broken. And until it is fixed then we will always have a half a conversation and we will not reach a conclusion which will be of benefit to anyone. 

As a minister I have responsibility for justice policy in Wales but much of this policy is not yet devolved and so I have no easy way of delivering any policy outcome. I rely upon the goodwill of the professional leadership and their desire to work together to deliver the coherence that politicians have failed to create. So we find ourselves in the curious situation of creating a series of ad hoc structures to overcome the difficulties created by the political structures. There are a lot of good people trying hard to do the right thing.

This is no way to run a country. 

The Welsh Government has been clear that it believes policing should be devolved and there is in all honestly very little real opposition to that. Secondly the Welsh Government has been clear that the two jurisdictions should be separated and a Welsh jurisdiction created. This is good sense and I assume that the Justice Commission created by the First Minister and led by the former Lord Chief Justice will make some observations and reach its own conclusions on these matters when it reports next year. Whilst it is fair to say that such things are rarely the topic of heated debate in the Dog and Duck they are the basics that any constitutional settlement should get right. A legal device that was created by the Tudors to help assimilate Wales into the Kingdom of England five centuries ago is probably not the best way to manage our democracy in the 21st century. Most of the rest of those acts of union have been repealed and it’s time that bit went as well. 

So that just leaves the penal system as the only part of the overall criminal justice system where we haven’t had these conversations. And it’s time we did so. My view is (probably unsurprisingly) that this should, alongside the other aspects of the system, be devolved. This will allow us to pursue an holistic approach which brings all aspects of the policy together with those services which are already devolved to provide for a coherent comprehensive and consistent approach to both developing policy and providing services. It is logical and it is rational. The current position is neither of these.

And this would also benefit the overall devolution settlement where these areas are now the biggest single impediment to the stability and clarity that we all wish to see.

And this is possible. The Ministry of Justice has already reached an agreement to begin the process of devolution of many of these powers to the Mayor of London. The Secretary of State, David Gauke, told the House of Commons a few months ago that they were seeking a whole systems approach. Hallelujah. So if it works in London with far less of the infrastructure required to deliver such a policy then why not in Wales where there is significantly more confusion and complexity and where a specific and tailored approach could more easily be delivered in a far-sighted and intelligent way? And of course Wales has own legislature and government etc….

So what next? What would a Welsh penal policy actually look like?

It is difficult to argue that the current policy has been developed to serve Welsh interests. It is inconceivable that any policy rooted in a desire to serve Wales would have given us a secure estate which looks anything like the current structure. My assumption is that the current configuration probably owes more to disagreements between departments in London and the prejudices of the Treasury than in addressing the needs of Wales. No Welsh policy would have created a situation whereby there is no facility for women, only a single youth offender centre located within an adult prison and until last year no facility at all outside the M4 corridor. 

But my view is that a Welsh penal policy would be different, not simply in bricks and mortar, but also in tone and values from much of what we’ve seen in the past. I hope that it would be rooted in humanity and respect with a clear commitment to rehabilitation and to an holistic approach to preventing reoffending and enabling people to acquire the skills and support they need to live their lives. And such an approach would benefit the whole country.

And what would this mean in reality? For me it would mean a clear commitment not to build a woman’s prison but to develop two and possibly three woman centres with a focus on providing support for the whole family unit and providing ways to support those women at times when their needs are greatest. At present most of the woman from Wales who are in prison are there for theft or other relatively minor offences. Many of these offences are the consequence of attempting to escape poverty or from violence at home. Few women commit serious crimes and many are simply incarcerated as a result of a summary conviction. We are currently developing alternative routes to detention which I hope will reduce the number of women who are detained. The first step in a new direction.

We have already succeeded in reducing the number of youth offenders who are being sent to secure units. The next step would be a secure centre potentially linked to an FE college where those young people detained could access high quality education and skills to enable them to resettle successfully into their home community. 

The bulk of the prison population are adult male prisoners. The approach of the Ministry of Justice has been to build new large-scale prisons such as Berwyn in Wrexham. Whilst it is true that this provides high quality facilities I have made clear that we do not need large-scale prison developments that inevitably provide accommodation many miles from home. But we also desperately need investment in the secure estate. I would prefer investment in smaller-scale prisons with greater links to training and employment opportunities in communities closer to their homes where coherent and consistent services can be provided. But we also need to bring together the already-devolved services of health and education with the overall management of the prison system. Many people who are detained experience significant issues with mental illness and substance abuse. We need to be able to deliver seamless support which brings together the penal system with social services, health and education services. Only then will we be able to seriously address these issues. 

So there is a compelling new agenda for the whole the criminal justice system in Wales which can revolutionise the way in which we will deal with some of the most vulnerable and challenged people in our society. But rather than addressing these matters today we have the situation where a broken settlement means that neither the Ministry of Justice nor the Welsh Government are able to deliver the holistic approach that both probably agree is needed. 

We simply cannot carry on like this. Wales deserves far better.

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