We were approached to chair this meeting where some prominent M.Ps and the like were speaking. An indication of how far we have come in the field of criminal justice, and how well respected we are as a team. This is something I am really proud of as founder of the charity and something we have been working towards for several years now.
Our chair George Grant represented us on the day and you can read his opening remarks here:
Prison Reform Conference Opening Remarks
29th March 2017
The purposes of imprisonment are often cited as incapacitation, punishment, retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation, but views have long differed as to the relative importance and priority of each.
In particular, where and how rehabilitation should sit within this mix has been a bone of great contention, one that, happily, is to be the focus for all of us here today.
Now whatever your views on how to best go about rehabilitating offenders, it surely represents progress that there now seems almost unanimity of agreement that the justice system should be in the business of doing so.
Not so long ago a recently retired prison officer told me of a former colleague who used to keep a single word stitched onto the inside of his hat. Whenever he was approached by a prisoner with some request or other he would take off his cap and, before the hapless petitioner could finish his sentence, present his answer: “No”.
As recently as the 1990s the then chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, told of his experience walking out of HMP Holloway after his first inspection, having discovered female inmates kept in chains whilst giving birth, a story with which many of you are doubtless familiar.
It is therefore testament to how far we have come when a Conservative prime minister can take to the airwaves to describe prisoners not as “liabilities to be managed” but as “potential assets to be harnessed”, while announcing his intention to make prison reform “one of the great progressive causes” of British politics.
In February of this year, the Justice Secretary announced her intention to enshrine into law that a key purpose of prisons will be to rehabilitate offenders.
Now, words are one thing and actions are another, and whilst we should never underestimate the power of words – indeed the words we use often set the tone for the debate within which policymakers, civil society and society at large determine what actions are desirable and what actions are deemed beyond the pale – nevertheless the grim backdrop to all this remains undeniable.
Cuts to prison officer numbers of fully 40 per cent since 2010, with the concomitant reduction to the prisons budget of £900 million, have undoubtedly made things more difficult, with many pointing to the recent spike in prison unrest as testament to that.
Moreover, even when money is put to one side, significant disagreement continues to exist over how best to rehabilitate offenders.
Almost everyone agrees that for serious offences, a custodial sentence is likely to be most appropriate.
Where the consensus breaks down is over the use of short prison sentences and the imprisonment of those convicted of less serious offences. Here, arguments rage over whether prison is the best option: does it help prisoners to “go straight” any better than a non-custodial sentence might? At a time of financial austerity, is the huge financial cost of prison justified by its results in rehabilitating offenders? Or is prison, in fact, an expensive way of making people worse?
Just last week the Justice Secretary announced her intention to overhaul the prison estate, including through the construction of four new “super-sized” prisons. Many prominent campaigners argued that reducing prisoner numbers required shutting prisons down, not opening them up, and that “until politicians grasp the nettle that we simply jail too many people and for too long, then governments will continue to preside over prisons that shame the nation”.
For her part, the Justice Secretary has rejected this approach of locking fewer people up for less time as a “dangerous attempt at a quick fix”.
Now, I’m not going to start giving my view on who has the right of it; that’s what today is for. So rather than talking about what should be done, I just want to take a few moments to tell you what is being done by the Yorkshire charity I chair called Tempus Novo, of which hopefully some of you will be familiar. Indeed it is in that capacity that I was asked here today.
What Tempus Novo is doing cannot be viewed in isolation from the incredible work carried out by so many others across the government, non-government and charitable sectors. We are one link in the chain, but an important one, indeed really Tempus Novo is the final link because what we are about is getting offenders – once they’ve passed all the way through the system and out the other side, into employment, and our data certainly shows a clear link between ex-offenders finding work and staying out of jail.
Tempus Novo was established in 2012 by two prison officers based at Armley Jail called Steve Freer and Val Wawrosz. Having worked with prisoners all their adult life, what Steve and Val recognised as the key ingredient to prisoners going straight is self-respect, and that the key to that is employment.
The problem is, who employs ex-cons? Quite aside from the lack of qualifications, mental health problems and all the other issues that so often accompany criminality, having a criminal conviction at the bottom of your CV is the short route to the waste paper basket for the vast majority of job applications.
In establishing Tempus Novo, what Steve and Val have done is create an entity that can meaningfully vouch for ex-offenders to employers. It is an entity employers trust to not only vet ex-offenders, but also to provide them with the practical and emotional support they need as they navigate their way out of crime and into employment. Tempus Novo continues to provide that support to our graduates once they find work, as well as offering a direct line to the employers themselves to help with any issues they might have.
The virtue of being prison-officer led is not only the trust that generates (in an environment in which trust on all sides is paramount), but also the access it has afforded us to the prison estate, allowing us to access and identify potential candidates for the programme before they have left jail, and provide them with a solid port of call in those critical first few days, even hours, after release.
And the results have been extremely encouraging: to date we have brought 191 ex-offenders onto the programme, so far helping to secure 83 of those a job interview, of whom 76 got the job. Almost 50% of those we’ve brought to interview have been PPOs, and the reoffending rate on the programme stands at 6.2%. 11 of the 12 returns to custody have been PPOs.
The model being pursued by Tempus Novo is far from the only one in this space, but it is one that I believe to be replicable beyond the county of West Yorkshire to which we are presently confined. It is also one that would most certainly fail without the requisite support from all the other critical partners operating across the justice system, many of whom are represented here in this room.
Which leaves me only to say how much I am looking forward to learning from all those we will be hearing from over the course of today, as well as through all your contributions in the discussions that follow, as to the right way forwards for rehabilitation offenders, and that what comes out of this conference will be useful for all of us, whatever our positions, in meaningfully working to bring that about.