Ideas in the Relegation Zone

David Cameron’s recent proposal to create a league table of prison performance, on par with the current league table of schools, has been generally heralded as one of his less risky ideas for prison reform. However, he seems to have missed out on a couple of important points.

First and foremost, the league table of schools works most of all because parents look up the schools in surrounding areas and choose the best available one for their children. Prisons don’t work that way. Prisoners can request a transfer to any prison they want, and often do, but when you are allocated a move to one prison or another, no matter how good or bad it is, you are rarely able to refuse. In fact, the only prisons I have ever known people be allowed to refuse a transfer to without being restrained and placed on the transport van anyway are those which are specialist prisons requiring compliance from the prisoner (such as therapeutic communities like HMP Grendon or open prisons). Since prisoners don’t get the final say about whether they accept a place at one prison or another, it is unclear what Cameron believes a school style league table would be good for.

Meanwhile, Cameron ignores the fact that a similar type of league table exists already. Reports by the Inspector of Prisons and the Independent Monitoring Board routinely offer statistics which can be used to assess which prisons are doing best in each of a number of areas. These are further assisted by the work of the Prisons and Probation, Ombudsman. For what good it does. When I was recommended for a transfer from Young Offenders to a Category C Adult prison back in 2008 I used the Prisons Handbook (available in every prison library) to find out which three prisons were rated highest in the areas most important to me personally. I offered these to the officer responsible for arranging my transfer and waited patiently to find out which Category C prison I would be sent to. Two months later, I was transferred to HMP Frankland – a Category A, High Security Prison.

Before any official prison league tables are put in place three things should be established. Firstly, what is wrong (or what needs to be improved) in the tables of prison performance already available? Second, what would an official league table aim to achieve? And third, how will its effectiveness be measured? Sure, we know that league tables worked well in education and that this is the department Michael Gove headed before moving to the Ministry of Justice, but that does not necessarily mean that the same ideas will work in the field of imprisonment. Until these questions are answered there will remain a significant murkiness to the rehabilitation revolution we were promised and have been waiting for since 2010.

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