Analysis of Charles Clarke’s prison plans

Special Report

By Maria Ahmed


This week, Home Secretary Charles Clarke made his first speech on
the government’s plans for prisons.

Clarke wants to increase use
            community sentences

Delivering the Prison Reform Trust’s annual lecture in
London, he set out a raft of proposals to put re-offending
“at the centre” of policy including:

• Increasing use of community sentences

• Placing prisoners close to their homes in ‘community

• Holding remand and sentenced prisoners separately

• “Minimising” remand time

• Creating diversion schemes for mentally ill prisoners into

• Improving access to health, education and employment

• Making probation services “contestable”

• Creating a ‘contract’ between offenders and the
state, requiring offenders to commit to a non-criminal future in
return for state support

• Creating “individualised” packages of support
for each offender

While most of the proposals have been broadly welcomed by
campaigners, there are concerns that Clarke’s lack of
commitment to reducing prison numbers – currently at a record
77,000 – will make achieving the proposals difficult.

An offender is much less likely to re-offend if
he feels part of a family and community.”

Community was the biggest theme running through Clarke’s
proposals, with 26 references to the term throughout his

Clarke proposed greater use of community sentences, and said he
rejected the “populist suggestion” that they were a
“soft option” in comparison to prison.

He also put forward plans for placing offenders on sentences of
less than four years – currently almost half of all sentenced
prisoners – in “community” prisons near to home which
allowed individuals to “maintain family and community
ties” and access support.

Action for Prisoner’s Families welcomed the proposal, but
emphasised that other factors “inhibiting” family
contact in the prison system, needed to be addressed.

Lucy Gampell, director of the charity, says: “Despite the
rise in the number of people being sent to prison, little has been
done to accommodate the subsequent increase in children and
families wanting to visit their relatives. Families trying to book
visits find their telephone calls unanswered or their lines
constantly engaged and are therefore unable to visit.

“Enabling prisoners to maintain contact with their
children and families, and take an active part in family life, is
one of the most important motivations for prisoners going straight.
Urgent attention must be given to all aspects of visiting
procedures in order for this to happen.”

I am not convinced that an overall obligation to
look at the overall size of the prison population is the right
thing to do.”

New Asset  
Campbell – “noticeable lack
detail” about needs of women’s

Just before making his speech this week, Clarke said he would
abandon his predecessor David Blunkett’s target of putting a
cap of 80,000 on the prison population, and proposed dropping plans
to put a legal obligation on the judge’s sentencing
guidelines council to take the size of the prison population into
account when sentencing.

For many campaigners, this hints at a “subtle policy
shift” in the government’s thinking.

Enver Solomon, head of policy and research at prisoner’s
charity Revolving Doors says: “It is clear the government is
not focused on reducing prison numbers. It was revealing that
Clarke did not talk about the futility of sending people to prison
for short periods, which was the clear message from Paul Goggins
when he was prison minister and also even Blunkett.

“The government now appears to be happy to have as many
people in prison as is necessary and is focusing instead on trying
to make sure that prisons are more effective places of

Paul Cavadino, chief executive of crime reduction charity Nacro,
points out that while Clarke’s plans for community prisons
would help to reduce re-offending, scrapping the target to peg
prison numbers at 80,000 “will make achieving these aims

He says: “The higher the prison population, the more
difficult it is to provide good resettlement services to all
prisoners who need them. Pressure of numbers is also a key reason
why so many prisoners are placed far from their home areas in any
prison which has a spare bedspace.

“One of the best ways of helping the Prison Service to
rehabilitate prisoners would be the adoption of clear official
targets to peg and then reduce the prison population.”

Particular attention needs to be given to
prisoners with particular characteristics such as women or young
people, or particular problems such as substance abuse or mental

Clarke said he was looking at how to get better diversion
systems in place for when people with mental disorders came into
contact with the police or the courts, but did not offer any
detailed plans for women, young people or those with substance
misuse problems.

He made only three references to women in his speech.

Pauline Campbell, a campaigner whose daughter Sarah Campbell
died in Styal women’s prison in January 2003, is critical of
the “noticeable lack of detail” about the needs of
women prisoners “despite their acknowledged

She raises concern that Clarke did not focus on the high numbers
of women who have died in custody and calls for a review of the use
of remand and greater use of community sentences for women.

“Since my daughter’s death, a further 28 women prisoners have
died – apparently self-inflicted deaths. It’s a cause for
concern, especially when most women prisoners are mothers.

“The fact that 60 per cent of women remanded in custody do
not subsequently receive a custodial sentence points to the urgent
need to review the unnecessary use of remand.

“Two-thirds of women prisoners are mothers, nine out of 10
women are convicted of non-violent offences and do not present a
risk to the public.  These women should be given community

According to Campbell, Clarke has also placed “too much
emphasis” on prisons, “with insufficient attention
directed to the need to keep women out of prison”.

Solomon echoes Campbell’s concerns and believes there should
be more emphasis on diverting people out of custody and addressing
the factors that lead to offending.

“The overall problem with Clarke’s approach is that
there is real danger of turning prison into a capacious social
service that provides poor quality drug treatment, mental health
support and basic skills training.

“The focus should be on putting resources into diverting
people away from custody and at the same time providing
interventions to the multiple social problems that offenders have
to prevent them from getting caught up in the revolving door of

Clarke made just one reference to young people in his speech, and
did not offer any detail on what the government was planning,
although the Home Office has confirmed there will be a Sentencing
and Youth Justice Bill published in the autumn.

“I am personally committed to the creation of a
vibrant mixed economy with NOMS.”

New Asset  
Crook likened Noms to
deckchairs on the Titanic”

Clarke reiterated the government’s plans for
organisational change in the prison and probation service through
the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), which was created
last year.

He gave firm confirmation that existing probation provision
would become “contestable” – making public
providers compete with voluntary and private sector providers to
run services.

Clarke denied this would be a “cost-cutting”
exercise, but insisted it would drive up performance in areas which
needed improvement.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform,
predicted the plans would lead to increased privatisation since
many voluntary organisations “would be unable to
compete” for regional contracts because of a lack of

She also predicted the plans would lead to the abolition of the
probation service, a move that has been the subject of intense
concern by unions since NOMS was introduced last year.

Crook likened Clarke’s proposals for NOMs to
“organising deckchairs on the Titanic”.

“The government are spending a huge amount reorganising
management and administration – to the neglect of service
provision. I predict that in five year’s time, offenders will
still be in the same situation that they are now and NOMS will not
make any difference to them.”

Clarke said he would be publishing a consultation paper on the
development of the Probation Service.

Judy McKnight, general secretary of probation union Napo, says:
“The contestability agenda is continuing to be driven across the
public sector by 10 Downing Street. It is not clear how much Home
Office ministers themselves are committed to it.

“We are still awaiting details of the consultation paper promised,
and we can take some heart from the fact that powers cannot be
taken away from probation boards without legislation. The timescale
is therefore a long one, and we will be aim a strong position to
fight any bill to threaten the powers of boards and effectively
threaten privatisation of the service in parliament.”

What next?

The Home Secretary will:

• Commission an internal review of the government’s
strategy for developing and investing in the prison estate which
will be published later this year.

• Review with the health service how to get better
diversion systems in place for people with mental disorders

• Work with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions,
David Blunkett to look at support for prisoners during the first
few weeks of release

To read Charles Clarke’s speech to the Prison
Reform Trust go to:



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