9 February 2016 | By Emily Giles Insight

Ambitious reforms for the prison service

Insight: Emily Giles, policy adviser, public services

David Cameron's approach to tackling the cycle of reoffending shows a welcome acknowledgement that the prison service needs a fundamental rethink.

Some of the facts we have heard on the state of our prisons this week are truly shocking: 47 per cent of all prisoners have no qualifications; 24 per cent were in care at some point as a child; 49 per cent have an identifiable mental health problem; and in an average week there will be one suicide and 600 incidents of self-harm in our prisons.

These issues all contribute to a cycle of reoffending – 46 per cent of all prisoners, and 60 per cent of those on short sentences, will reoffend within one year of release. And that costs the taxpayer up to £13bn every year.

This week, David Cameron acknowledged that the service needs a fundamental rethink as he announced measures to tackle these offending-related issues. His approach would give greater autonomy to those on the frontline who understand the system, and see data used to drive better outcomes.

With the right commercial engagement with the private and voluntary sectors, these reforms have the potential to truly transform the way the prison service is run.

Driving change

Increasing the autonomy of prison governors will allow them to take control of their operational budgets, deciding where best to spend money to deliver better results. Not only will this add to the supplier base available to them – improving outcomes by boosting competition – but also gives frontline staff, who best understand how the system works, the power to work with private and voluntary organisations to try out new ideas. This will be key if the government really wants to creatively tackle the challenges facing the system.

Measuring prison performance with improved metrics will also help to drive up results, and help build public trust in services. Data switches the focus onto outcomes, which is a key behaviour government must adopt when aiming to transform services. The new prison metrics will allow government to hold those delivering services, whether from the public, private, or voluntary sector, to account, ensuring taxpayer money is being spent effectively.

As well as highlighting the important role of businesses and charities in prison operations, the prime minister emphasised the huge opportunities available in technology, such as the use of satellite tracking and alcohol monitoring tags, in which business can also play a huge role. To really harness this potential, the government will need to engage in strategic dialogue with suppliers, forging deep partnerships based on shared outcomes.

It’s an exciting time for prison reform. This is an ambitious programme of transformation, which has real potential to radically improve the service. There will be a wealth of opportunity for businesses and charities to play a vital role in David Cameron’s “reform prisons” and the new prisons that have been promised in this parliament, delivering investment and innovation to truly transform the prison service.