Restorative prisons - an idea worth exploring

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Jon Collins
20 November 2016

If there’s one thing that almost everybody can agree on at the moment, it’s that the prison system is in a mess. The Justice Secretary recently described a “toxic cocktail of drugs, drones and mobile phones that are flooding our prisons, imperilling the safety of staff and offenders and thwarting reform”. Her predecessor Michael Gove said last week that prison is currently “expensive, anti-social, inefficient and often de-humanising”. The Spectator led with “We can no longer ignore the crisis in our prisons”. And, at the other end of the political spectrum, the Guardian argued that it is simply “impossible” to tackle the complex problems underpinning offending in the current conditions.

There is unanimity, then, that the current situation is not acceptable and that a new approach is urgently required. It was into this climate that the Ministry of Justice published its recent Prison Safety and Reform White Paper, the subject of my last blog. Whether or not you agree with the scope or focus of the proposed reforms, they are an effort to address the current crisis.

Among the primary issues that the White Paper seeks to address is violence within prisons, both between prisoners and between prisoners and staff. Since 2012, the total number of assaults in prisons has increased by 64%, with assaults on staff up by 99%. As Liz Truss argues in the introduction, “We will never be able to address the issue of re-offending if we do not address the current level of violence and safety issues in our prisons.”

Among the many measures set out in the White Paper to address this problem, one paragraph proposes the greater use of restorative approaches to deal with low-level violence in prisons (something that I’ve previously advocated here). It also mentions a pilot currently underway in two prisons to trial a restorative approach. As the White Paper notes, this pilot is being evaluated.

This paragraph was attacked in yesterday’s Daily Mail, which states that “Prisoners will be able to avoid punishment for attacking guards simply by saying sorry or shaking hands” and implies that these measures are another sign of a move towards ‘softer’ regimes in prisons in England and Wales. The tone of the article is predictably and overwhelmingly critical, despite a robust and supportive comment from the Ministry of Justice.

This is hardly a new line of attack – restorative justice has long been criticised for being soft, even though offenders who take part report that it is anything but. It is, however, short sighted and unhelpful. We know that current approaches to reducing violence aren’t working, given the state of our prisons. New approaches are required to augment (rather than necessarily replace) what is currently being done. Restorative practice can be an important part of this, with experience demonstrating that its use can help to create safer and more stable prisons.

By formally piloting the use of a restorative practice in two prisons, we will get a better idea of how to implement it effectively and the extent of its impact. If it doesn’t work, then the evaluation will show that and help us to understand why. This can only be a good thing. I think that restorative practice will help make prisons safer. Many prison governors agree. If we’re shown to be wrong by the evaluation of the pilot, then we’ll need to try something else. But in the meantime there is no point in attacking a promising new approach when the status quo is so clearly failing.