8 Feb 2016

Michael Gove: in the clink and on the referendum brink

Michael Gove defends the prison reforms on Channel 4 News tonight and tries to sell them to inmates at The Mount prison outside Hemel Hempstead.

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He also says that the decision he takes on whether to back the PM on the EU will be one he will leave until after the PM returns from Brussels with a deal and will be a decision of “heart and head”.

On prison reform, the Prime Minister has announced six prisons will become “reform” prisons, a status like “school academies” that gives the governor more power over his or her budget.

There is strong rhetoric on the need to see prisoners as potential assets not warehoused waste. The underpinning argument in this speech  and the one given by Michael Gove at the Tories’ 2015 conference (also this one in July last year quoting Churchill on the treasure in every human heart) is that there needs to be a revolution in prisoner rehabilitation.

The problem is this is launch number three or four or the prisoner rehabilitation revolution over a span of 10 years both in opposition and in government. The shocking over-crowded conditions outlined by the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, in his valedictory report, worsened, he says, during David Cameron’s first five years as PM.

And David Cameron, if you were looking for more signs of shakiness, was special adviser to Home Secretary Michael Howard when he said “prison works” and committed to raising inmate numbers.

Many if not all the charities involved in prisoner welfare are convinced that rehabilitation will only really work if there are fewer people in jail. Michael Gove and David Cameron aren’t letting on if they are secretly intellectually convinced of this argument.

They talk instead about different sentencing and changing available sentences. Some hardliners like the Daily Mail already smell a pinko plot and don’t like the sound of weekday release for prisoners coming to the end of their sentences.

One Whitehall source said it was telling that the Prime Minister didn’t want to dive in the deep end on full-blown shorter sentences right now, speculating that he doesn’t want to stir up the right of his party just when they are on the edge of the Europe referendum campaign. The source said it encouraged them to think this, like previous rehabilitation attempts, might peter out.

The most notable recent push came from Ken Clarke when he was appointed justice secretary in the coalition government in 2010. David Cameron was said to have reacted against his breezy confidence about liberal penal policy. A powerful voice in his ear at that time was Andy Coulson.

Prisoner welfare charities have welcomed the “warm words” from No. 10 and Michael Gove but raised doubts about delivery. They may be comforted to hear that Michael Gove is not a fan of mega prisons, “warehousing” inmates in their thousands. He seems to have it in mind to build conventional-sized prisons, around 1,000 or so inmates, when he’s replacing the older inner-city jails primed for sell-off.

On the visit, inmates at HMP The Mount came up to Mr Gove and asked him to look into their cases. One wrote a sign and held it up through sound-proofed perspex. Mr Gove signalled he should write to him, waving his hands like a charades participant.

He wandered into a cell speaking to inmates as if he’d dropped in for tea on a neighbour. “Do you mind if I come in? I’m Michael. I just wanted to see inside. I’m so sorry to interrupt.”

In the prison bike repair workshop one prisoner told him they needed more prison officers to make release from cells and rehabilitation possible (the Cameron years have seen a cut of 20 per cent in prison officer numbers).

Another spoke of his anxiety about his release date, still a long way off after 16 years inside, but a moment he thinks will see him standing on the threshold with the standard issue £46 in his pocket and no job, no home and nowhere to go.

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