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Posted on 7 July 2010 at 2:25 GMT

Interview: Ken Clarke's prison plans

Genuine reform or further hypocrisy?

On 30 June Ken Clarke, the new justice secretary, made a speech addressing the problems of a soaring prison population.
His speech has been welcomed by the press as representing a break with previous Tory policies, but the detail reveals plans for spending cuts and privatisation.
Sarah Sachs-Eldridge spoke to Brian Caton, recently retired general secretary of the POA prison officers' union, about his views on the implications for prisoners, prison officers and wider society.

Ken Clarke has promised to reverse years of "banging up more and more people". Do you think this signals positive change for prisons?

A huge proportion of those currently in prison fall into three major categories. One is substance abusers. Secondly, people with diagnosed mental health problems who should not be in prison anyway. And thirdly, there are those with personality disorders, who, if prison officers were resourced appropriately, they could begin the process to change that personality disorder and help these people move away from criminal behaviour.

Ken Clarke's announcement is a very thin shellac over what they are going to do. The real cuts will mean we will see the prison budget slashed by a third, not a quarter, in applied terms.

The prison service will have a third less money to deal with the prisoners they have in their care. That will mean less prison officers, as that is the only way they can do it. This will mean less opportunity for prisoners to come out of their cells and to engage in constructive activity, let alone to engage in activity that will challenge their offending behaviour and their personality and mental illness problems.

So what he's actually doing is saying on one hand we're going to do more for them and at the same time we're going to give you less money to do it!

The prison budget has already been slashed year on year for the past ten, maybe 12 years. At the same time we've seen more and more people in prison. When Ken Clarke was home secretary in the 1990s there were almost 45,000 in prison and there are now 85,000 so it's going up all the time.

He has criticised Labour and said he would have balked at anyone projecting that there would have been this amount of prisoners 17 years down the road.

Well that's absolute nonsense because the projections then were for 60,000 in prison and they were well known.

I sat in front of him and discussed it. But he does tend to have a convenient memory!

What are your views on increasing the emphasis on 'non-custodial' sentances?

For those doing less than 12 months we do nothing with them other than keeping them imprisoned. By the time they've gone through the courts and so on there's too little time left to start any training before they're getting ready for release.

So there is some wisdom in this issue of not having people in for short terms. He has claimed that community sentencing will be cheaper and more effective. Non-custodial sentences need to carry the confidence of working men and women. They need to see that these people's offending behaviour is being put right through community sentences.

If they do not carry the confidence of working people they will very quickly fall into disrepute and the courts will again take it in their hands to lock people up for short sentences.

The rich can afford to have supreme burglar alarms and security devices. It's working class people who suffer from crime, who have living among them those who are susceptible to needing to support addictions and substance abuse.

So it's ordinary working class people who will suffer as a result of rising crime. There is no government body capable and able to take that amount of people tomorrow and usefully employ them, and to usefully administer community sentences.

So Mr Clarke and his colleagues will be looking for private companies and also the so-called third sector, charities, to do this work.

Charities will do it providing that they are earning money because they are not charities any more. They are big businesses with high-flying chief executives, roped in from all over the private sector.

They are funded in the main by private companies who will use any method to earn profits. Mr Clarke will hand some of the work directly to these companies. And he will seek to throw people out of work in the public sector. A lot of them will be POA members.

The POA as a trade union has made it absolutely categorically clear that if they attack prison officers' jobs then POA members will strike.

You're talking about an organisation that for many years has had the right to strike removed from it.

If they are attacked and their livelihoods, their safety and the safety of the general public is put at risk by Mr Clarke's attempts to shellac the cuts, they will walk out.

Do you think it is possible to reduce the prison population?

We all want to see less people in prison, and they could start with the young girls who have been physically and sexually abused, who have mental health and drug problems the like of which you can see in no establishment anywhere other than the female prisons.

They could start by putting them into psychiatric care, where they should be and where they can receive the proper treatment and care that they need to turn their lives round.

Their lives will not be turned round in prison, particularly in prisons where there is going to be a third of the budget cut.

These are 16 and 17 year old girls who have lived horrendous lives on the outside. The cuts will mean that more prisoners will die as a result of self harm, more prisoners will not be rehabilitated and subsequently there will be more crime committed by ex-offenders than there would have been had the cuts not taken place.

So Ken Clarke's comments are misleading?

For Ken Clarke to claim that he can make these cuts at the same time as improving rehabilitation is nonsense.

He is misleading the general public. The people he's not misleading are those who have the responsibility on behalf of society to work in our prisons.

They know exactly what these cuts will mean.

There are already fewer prison officers on duty than there has been in the past and more prisoners. He says he is going to cut the amount of prisons but I don't believe him. I think we will see cuts in the amount of prison staff on duty. They are already talking about major changes now that mean less trained staff on duty and using operational support more and more on tasks that support staff are not trained to do.

And using more and more of our civil service colleagues to do those tasks.

What is needed to reduce re-offending levels?

In the main we have a good relationship with prisoners and to be fair the POA does a lot of shouting on behalf of prisoners because they are why we are there.

If we have better resources they get a better time and we can actually encourage them and get them on the road of not re-offending.

The idea is to try wherever we can to release prisoners who are prepared to rehabilitate themselves into the authority of other agencies.

Prison is only part of the scheme. The individual is 90% of the scheme. They have to be prepared for getting their life together. The findings of the custody, care and justice document in 1991, which Mr Clarke never implemented, was all about doing those things.

What we can't do is know ultimately whether a prisoner is going to lead a law-abiding life. What we can do is prepare them and get them ready for it and structure their expectations where possible and get outside agencies to engage with them once they're released.

The bulk of the work is outside, back in society.

We've all got challenges, paying mortgages, putting bread on the table etc. Prisoners, especially those with big things in their way like drug abuse and mental health problems are very poor at doing that.

These things don't really affect them so much while they are in prison but on release they are the issues for which they need more support than the average man and woman needs.

Cuts in probation and other services will be devastating. The probation service can't manage now. If the job folds or the house they were meant to get doesn't happen that gives them every excuse to get back on the dope or back to burglary.

That is the reality of criminal behaviour. It's not led by criminals, it's led by drug barons, by the failures of the NHS to treat people for their mental health problems and personality disorders; it's failure by the education system that starts all this.

The custody, care and justice bill was produced as a result of Lord Wolfe's inquiry into the Strangeways and other riots by the home office when Ken Clarke was home secretary.

I went to see him. We were given half hour to read it. I believe he never read it and never implemented it because that would have meant spending money on prisons.

Had they spent the money then we wouldn't have the prison problems we have now.

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