Queen Elizabeth unveils Britain's 'biggest shakeup' of prisons since Victorian times

Queen Elizabeth's annual address Wednesday included judicial reforms, such as plans to provide more autonomy to prisons and give inmates more access to technology – initiatives which haven't gained much ground in the US.

Richard Pohle/Reuters
Britain's Queen Elizabeth speaks to dignitaries as she leaves after attending the State Opening of Parliament in central London, Britain May 18, 2016. The Queen's speech laid out the Conservative government's ambitious plans for prison reform, including an effort to help prisoners connect to the outside world using technology.

In an ambitious effort billed as “biggest shakeup of prisons since Victorian times,” Britain’s Queen Elizabeth on Wednesday unveiled government proposals to provide more freedom to local prison governors and encourage the use of technology to help inmates better connect with their families on the outside.

The Queen’s annual speech to Parliament laying out the ruling government’s legislative agenda begins with several ceremonial traditions, including taking an MP hostage. But this year's speech also represented a break with tradition.

After decades of get-tough-on-crime policies, judicial reform efforts such as a plan to provide inmates with iPads and access to Skype to allow them to reach friends and family reflect a growing international consensus that prisons are not simply a place of punishment but provide paths to rehabilitation or redemption.

Helping offenders readjust to society by providing education programs and encouraging contact with family and friends, the argument goes, is a large part of deterring people from committing future crimes. These prison reforms have taken shape in countries ranging from Norway to the US, with Britain's policy representing a possible middle ground between the two.

“Even looking at the way that they talk about it, the framing that’s used, even there you can see a difference from the way that prison reform is talked about in the US. They’re really talking about the longterm approach to crime and public safety, and that’s still kind of missing in the US,” says Bernadette Rabuy, senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative.

American jails and prisons bar private Internet access, while all communications are closely monitored. The technology that does exist, including phone calls, video visitation systems, and rudimentary electronic messaging, has been hampered by what many justice reform advocates say is a system of private company contracts that puts the burden for paying for the technology – which is often faulty – on inmates’ families.

While the British government hasn't said exactly how it will address the security concerns – and cost – of providing Internet access to prisoners, advocates say efforts to allow people to maintain contact with the outside world are a key step in helping offenders readjust to society.

“For us, one of the concerns is that people are held significant distances from their family, and family is probably one of the most important resettlement agencies that there is,” says Alex Hewson, policy and communications director at Prison Reform Trust, an advocacy group based in London.

The government’s plan also includes a pilot program to use GPS tracking systems that would allow inmates to work or pursue education during weekdays while spending weekends in prison.

The plan was released along with a study conducted by educator Dame Sally Coates on Wednesday that calls for prisons to make technology available to inmates in their cells “so prisoners can learn independently.”

After a series of highly-criticized austerity policies, Prime Minister David Cameron framed the plan as a unifying effort, saying it was a “One Nation Queen’s speech from a One Nation government.”

“For too long, we have left our prisons to fester. Not only does that reinforce the cycle of crime, increasing the bills of social failure that taxpayers must pick up. It writes off thousands of people,” he said in a statement.

The British government’s plan would allow a small group of six prisons in London, the East Midlands, and northeast of England to opt out of national contracts for services and to set policies on education programs, rehabilitation services, family visits, and work programs on an individual basis. These efforts would also be coupled with a plan to create a more comprehensive set of statistics on reoffending rates.

“By trusting governors to get on with the job, we can make sure prisons are places of education, work, and purposeful activity. These reforms will reduce re-offending, cut crime, and improve public safety,” said Justice Secretary Michael Gove, in a statement.

Ms. Coates's plan also calls for the expansion of Teach First programs – which encourages high-achieving college graduates to take up teaching positions – into prisons. Under this plan, graduates would work as prison guards for two years.

Reform advocates like Mr. Hewson say they welcome the efforts, noting that the expansion of Teach First could help raise awareness of conditions in prisons.

Allowing access to technology could be also be a key step in helping inmates resettle into the general population, possibly reversing a trend of more punitive policies, such as requiring prisoners who want to study a degree course to take out student loans to pay for them.

Some prisons in the United Kingdom have experimented with pilot programs using Skype, though it may be too early to tell how they will actually work.

Ms. Rabuy, of the Prison Policy Initiative, says from the US perspective, a weekday-release program is an ambitious effort. “I know that it happens [in the US], but it happens so rarely, I feel like you could count how many people are able to do that,” she says.  

Some observers said the government’s efforts, which came amid a slew of job training and education bills, are also a canny political move.

“You could bang on forever about how today’s Queen’s speech proves that the Tories do believe that state intervention has the power positively to transform life chances, and that somehow this is an ideological win for the left, proof that Jeremy Corbyn is bothering the government,” wrote The Guardian’s Deborah Orr. “But all it really proves is that Conservatives believe fervently in the concept of rehabilitation – for themselves.”

Hewson cautions that whether the policies succeed could depend on whether the government is committed to rethinking policy decisions that have caused the prison population to nearly double in the last 20 years.

The use of remand sentences, where people are held – on average for nine weeks, according to the Prison Reform Trust – while awaiting trial or sentencing is still an issue, though it has decreased in recent years.

In the US, many people remain in local jails without being convicted because of their inability to raise money to pay bail, a system that PPI argues is “set up to fail” because many people who are incarcerated were already living below the poverty line.

The median bail amount is $10,000, which is equal to eight months of income for a typical defendant, the group found.

But in Britain, the benefits of the weekday release program could also be blunted if the increased services are coupled with a rising prison population.

“The aim is to make sure that prison isn’t as destructive as it currently is, so it means that people are given the opportunities to work towards their release, they are able to establish links to employers, it might be that they progress in terms of training and skills,” Hewson says.
“We turn up for work everyday and take it for granted, but for many people, that’s a very alien concept, and so long as this doesn’t act as a means of sucking more people into the prison system, that would be a good thing.”

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