Michael Gove – 2016 Speech on Making Prisons Work


Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, at the Governing Governors’ Forum on 12 May 2016.

Good morning, and thank you very much for that kind introduction.

It is a great pleasure to be here today among so many motivated and dedicated governors at a time of exciting changes – and challenges – for the prison service. Looking around the room, I see a good number of familiar faces from my many prison visits and discussions. These have taught me so much about the scale of those challenges that you deal with every day.

Dare to be different

One of your number, Russell Trent – the governor of the new HMP Berwyn in north Wales – was on holiday recently when some of his plans for the prison suddenly attracted a wave of criticism.

In his desire to boost rehabilitation he had spoken of wanting to create a prison atmosphere that was as close to ‘normality’ – to life on the outside – as possible.

He had explained that when Berwyn opened, the ‘men’ – not ‘prisoners’ – would be held in ‘rooms’ rather than ‘cells’. The men would have telephones in their rooms so they could ring their families and say goodnight. Prison officers would knock on the doors of those rooms before entering, as a basic courtesy.

These cheap and simple measures, Russ pointed out, would make HMP Berwyn a decent place that would facilitate rehabilitation, and that could only be a good thing because keeping offenders from re-offending makes us all safer.

As a former Royal Marine, Russ Trent is not one to shrink from ‘incoming’. Even so, he did wonder how much trouble he would be in on his return from holiday.

The answer, I’m glad to say, was none.

Quite the opposite.

When it comes to governing prisons, Russ’s instincts are absolutely right. Because the principal purpose of prison is rehabilitation.

We want individuals who leave prison to be changed characters – to be redeemed, to have rejected violence as a way of settling disputes, to have overcome the impulsiveness, weakness and lack of self-respect which drew them into crime in the first place, to have become assets contributing to society rather than liabilities who bring only costs.

And we don’t make it easier to rehabilitate individuals back into society if, during their time in custody, they live in squalid conditions, face daily indignities and don’t have the chance to form relationships based on mutual respect.

But in order to make prisons work we need to allow Governors to govern. At the moment you are held back – by too many rules, too much bureaucracy and, to be frank, the fear that if something goes wrong – or even worse – gets in the papers – then that’s it – career over.

So I have one essential message that I want to get across today. I am behind you; Michael Spurr is behind you – in your desire to lead your prisons, not just manage them. We want you to dare to be different – to exercise as much autonomy as possible – to be guided by moral purpose not manuals and rulebooks – in your mission to change lives for good.

If we want safer streets, we must first have safer prisons
If we give you – the people in this room – more freedom and support then I believe we can make all our prisons much more effective at rehabilitation. And that will serve the highest purpose of all – making our society safer, more secure and more civilized. When nearly half of those in prison go on to re-offend, we cannot say our criminal justice system is working. Only by changing how prisoners behave – when they’re in our care – can we contribute effectively to public safety.

But before we can do the necessary work of rehabilitation which will make our streets safer, we must first ensure that our prisons are made safer. Only when they are places of calm stability and order can we make the difference we need to.

I have nothing but admiration for those who work in our prisons: officers, teachers, chaplains, governors – all those who devote themselves to caring for offenders are, I believe, doing genuinely noble work. Work for which they don’t get nearly enough recognition, praise and thanks. So nothing I am about to say is intended as criticism of those who work so hard in our prisons to keep society safer.

Indeed I hope many prison officers – and those who work alongside them – will welcome a candid acknowledgement of just how difficult and dangerous conditions now are in our prisons.

The most recent figures for deaths in custody and violence in prisons are terrible. There’s no point trying to minimise, excuse or divert attention away from the increasing problems we face.

One hundred self-inflicted deaths in custody, up from 79; assaults on staff up by36 per cent to 4,963; an increase of 25 per cent in incidents of self-harm.

I am grateful to the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, and his successor, Peter Clarke, for their unsparing focus on the problems we face.

Nick drew attention to the accelerating increase in serious assaults in his annual report last July.

Since then, report after report, while often praising the hard work and dedication of officers, has reinforced the scale of the challenges. Peter’s report into Wormwood Scrubs published earlier this year – in which he condemned the institution as rat-infested, over-crowded and nowhere near safe enough – was particularly chastening. I was painfully reminded of just how far we have to go when I heard of the assaults inflicted on a male and female prison officer at the Scrubs just this weekend. These incidents weigh on my conscience.

Our prisons need a radical programme of reform which will take several years to implement before they can make the positive difference I know you are all capable of delivering, but what prisons need now, most of all, is rapid action to enhance staff safety and improve prison security.

We have taken some significant steps already. We have recruited 2,830 prison officers since January 2015, a net increase of 530. We are trialling the use of body-worn cameras; our tough new law on psychoactive substances comes into force at the end of this month – including sentences of up to two years for their possession in prison – and we are strengthening the case management of individuals at risk of harming others. The Violence Reduction Project is giving us a better understanding of the causes and characteristics of violence. A new project on suicide and self-harm will give extra support to vulnerable prisoners.

But we need to do much more. I will be giving further details in the weeks ahead about other urgent steps we are taking to improve safety across the estate.

I am – personally – delighted that work to enhance security in all our prisons is now being led by a new director – the superbly talented and experienced former Governor Claudia Sturt. She will be given the resources and support she needs to make a positive difference for good. And I want to work closely with her – and with all prison staff and their representative bodies – to make the changes we need.

Governors at the heart of change

Claudia’s appointment embodies one of the central elements of our reform programme – putting Governors at the heart of driving change.

The lesson of other public service reforms is that empowering managers at the frontline by giving them greater autonomy generates innovation. Proper accountability and scrutiny then identify which institutions and which innovations are driving the biggest improvements, so others can emulate them.

From July 1, four trailblazing governors will be appointed to run prisons with the maximum possible level of autonomy under current legislation. But while these early adopters will have huge scope to innovate, every governor will be granted greater autonomy and expected to use new freedoms to improve rehabilitation.

In particular, I want to see prisoners spend much more time engaged in the sort of purposeful activity which prepares them for life on the outside – pursuing worthwhile educational qualifications, or working in an environment that will help them get a satisfying job on release.

Not only are these goods in themselves, it’s also manifestly the case that the more prisoners are engaged in activities which occupy their hands and minds, the more they see a link between their daily routine and a chance to succeed on the outside, the more they are given hope that by their own actions they can secure a better future – the less likely they are to feel frustrated, angry and un-cooperative. The more purpose there is in every prisoner’s day, the more likely their prison is to be an ordered, safe and successful environment.

The review of prison education by the inspirational academy head teacher Dame Sally Coates will be published shortly. I mustn’t pre-empt its full range of recommendations. But as the Prime Minister has already said, Sally will argue that governors should be given direct control of education budgets.

It’s a big change. But radical change is needed. The current level of education provision in prisons is frankly inadequate. While there are some inspirational teachers, quality overall is far too low. That’s partly because the present system means that just four further education providers serve all prisons in England with an often unrewarding diet of low-level qualifications which do not open career doors.

It’s no good for prisoners – or society – if their experience of education is banal material tediously delivered which has little or no relevance to securing any sort of satisfying job. Education needs to give prisoners skills that will enable them to lead socially constructive and economically valuable lives. It should also provide prisoners with the chance to grow culturally and morally – to develop new interests and strengthen character.

Critically, education should also help prisoners to acquire the social skills and virtues which will make them better fathers, better husbands and better brothers. Ensuring that prisoners can re-integrate into family life and maintain positive relationships is crucial to effective rehabilitation. Families are one of our most effective crime-fighting institutions. And we should strengthen them at every turn.

Under our reform plans, individual Governors will be able to demand that their current education provider radically improves – and if not, they can take their custom elsewhere. Governors will be held to account for educational outcomes and celebrated for the value they add – providing an additional incentive and reward for getting more prisoners to acquire meaningful qualifications.

Critical to our reform programme, however, is providing not just the right incentives to empower managers who want to support rehabilitation but also providing the right incentives for offenders themselves to engage in rehabilitative activity.

That means giving Governors more control over how incentives are shaped for, and privileges granted to, the offenders in their care. Prisoners need to be able to see a direct link every day between engaging in purposeful activity and living in a more civilised environment.

We also need to review the position of prisoners who have received Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) Sentences. We must not compromise public safety but there are a significant number of IPP prisoners who are still in jail after having served their full tariff who need to be given hope that they can contribute positively to society in the future.

We also need to enable Governors to release more prisoners on temporary licence. It can only enhance public safety if prisoners can gain experience of work and life on the outside prior to full release, learning how to conduct themselves properly and contribute effectively so they can integrate successfully back into society.

Giving prisoners incentives to change

Let me turn first to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme. My colleague Andrew Selous has been consulting widely among governors, staff and others – to assess how well the current system is working.

The answer – not very. The widespread view is that IEP does not do enough to encourage good behaviour, or contribute to rehabilitation.

It is seen as bureaucratic and punitive, offering little difference between standard and enhanced levels.

We propose to reform the system – giving Governors far greater autonomy to shape incentives and privileges in a way they consider right for their institution. We think there, of course, need to be minimum standards of decency and it’s probably right to have a core framework around which individual approaches can be built.

It seems sensible to have national standards on the number of privilege levels, the process governing reviews and appeals, and the transfer of privilege levels after a prison move.

But while we need to respect the fact that prisons operate as part of an integrated system we must also recognise that prisons work best when leaders lead. It must be right that the man or woman in charge of any institution should be able to reward the behaviour that makes their institution work well in the way they think best. Or else what does leadership mean?

I was very struck by how effective autonomy over granting privileges can be when I visited the prison Nick Hardwick most admires in this country – the Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC) in Colchester, Britain’s custodial facility for men in the Armed Forces.

The Commanding Officer there – the leader of the institution – has huge flexibility over how he grants privileges and additional freedoms to prisoners. Enthusiastic commitment to work and education secures the rapid accumulation of additional benefits. That not only contributes to an atmosphere of order and purpose, it helps accelerate the offender’s journey back into the mainstream.

Of course, the MCTC caters for a very specific type of offender but the principles behind the CO’s approach are clearly applicable in almost any prison – as Nick Hardwick was right to point out in his report of March last year. ‘The MCTC,’ he noted, ‘holds some complex and challenging detainees and there is much they do from which the civilian system could learn.’

We want to learn from that, and will consult with governors over how changes to IEP will work in practise.

The next area I want to touch on briefly is the future for IPP prisoners. I was struck, like many others, by the candid admission from the former Home Secretary David Blunkett last month that these sentences had developed in a way he had never envisaged. I sympathise with his position.

And in helping to resolve this issue I am grateful to be able to turn once more to Nick Hardwick – in his new role as Chairman of the Parole Board.

There will always be some prisoners whose behaviour and attitudes render them a continuing danger to the public and who need to remain in custody for a significant time.

But there are also – clearly – some prisoners who have served their tariff, who want to prove they are ready to contribute to society and who have been frustrated by failures in the way sentence plans have worked and bureaucracy in the parole system.

I’m pleased work is already being done inside prisons to reinvigorate sentence plans in complex cases, leading to prisoners being released at an appropriate point.

But more still needs to be done – and I have asked Nick to help develop an improved approach to handling IPP prisoners which keeps inside those who pose real risks to the public but gives hope and a reason to engage in rehabilitative activity to the majority.

Which brings me to the third area of change I wanted to touch on today – the use of Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) to reintegrate offenders into society.

Properly used, ROTL can do a huge amount to improve a prisoner’s chances of finding a long-term job. ROTL removes the ‘cliff edge’ between custody and liberty, and enables prisoners to adjust to the expectations and demands of society.

Allowing a prisoner out on temporary release is not a soft option – it is a preparation for the hard choices that life on the outside demands. ROTL requires prisoners to commit to proper work, the discipline of new routines and respect for new boundaries set by others.

ROTL doesn’t just help prisoners prepare for employment. It also helps prisoners strengthen the family ties which are crucial to rehabilitation. Mothers can develop stronger relationships with their children; husbands can demonstrate they are ready to behave with greater consideration and regard for others.

We know that the three most powerful factors helping to keep ex-offenders from re-offending are a good job, strong family ties and a stable place to live – ROTL makes all of them easier to achieve.

The structure of ROTL was always reformist – it put power in the hands of individual governors. It was for you to decide – when you were confident that an offender’s risk to others was diminishing – to give them the chance to grow into their imminent freedom.

ROTL has made useful citizens – social assets – out of people who once generated only pain, injury and trouble.

Offenders have completed plumbing and heating qualifications under ROTL and now unblock U-bends for a living. We have turned out gym instructors, barbers, chefs, landscape gardeners, builders – even locksmiths and a Parliamentary researcher.

The system, of course, is not infallible. Mistakes in the past led to an understandable tightening-up of the rules. When individuals abuse freedoms, regimes will be tightened.

But ultimately, public safety is better served by allowing prisoners to develop the skills and characteristics they need to succeed on the outside through extensive use of ROTL than it is by keeping too many prisoners inside and then releasing them ill-prepared and unready for life outside – more likely than ever to go back to a life of crime.

The number of prisoners to benefit from ROTL has fallen by 40 per cent since 2013. So I think now is the time for a change.

After careful consideration, we have decided to give governors more control. Although it will take time for confidence in the system to return fully, I believe that it would be wrong to allow a very few high-profile cases, appalling though they were, to distract us from the long-term advantages for society of ROTL.

With the help of careful assessment processes, I am confident that our reform-minded governors can identify the most promising candidates for a successful, safe, ROTL. Prisoners like Jason Ridgeway, a former Light Dragoon who served in Bosnia and later fell into debt, and was jailed for his involvement in a drug dealing operation.

Now in Kirklevington Grange Open Prison, in north-east England, he has been taken on as a general worker for the construction giant Balfour Beatty.

He says his job has been crucial to his rehabilitation and wishes he didn’t have to stay in prison for one full day each week even when work has been offered. His mother is not well, and he can now help her – a ‘massive weight off my shoulders’, he says. As for Balfour Beatty? Jason says: ‘I can’t big the company up enough for taking us on. What they get from us lads, the keen ones, is really hard work. They have absolute loyalty.

‘So many people here are basically good, but they can be backed in a corner and desperate. This is a real way out.’

Jason was speaking to an audience of employers, journalists and the intimidating figure of Andrew Selous. Another prisoner present – jailed for 14 years for ‘gang-related stuff’ – was so nervous that day he could barely speak. ‘Go on Michael, you can do it,’ bellowed his Balfour Beatty manager and mentor. And Michael did. ‘I just want to say “thanks” for the chance,’ he said. ‘It means everything.’

Let me repeat what he said, so simply. ‘It means everything.’

In HMP Send, I recently met the impressive law student and mentor CJ, who wakes up at 4am to read her textbooks before heading off into London to counsel young people against joining gangs. ‘I’ve spent over five years incarcerated,’ she says, ‘and RoTL has been one of the most rewarding, fulfilling, enlightening and freeing experiences of not only those five years, but of all the years of deception and darkness that preceded prison.

‘Rotl gave me the chance to be the person I have always wanted to be: a productive, hardworking, respected member of a team; a responsible parent who can financially look after their child and family; a contributing member of society who takes pride in paying their taxes.’

Productive. Hard-working. Respected. Responsible. Able to look after children and family. And a proud tax-payer! What more could any government or governor want of a prisoner?


Some people believe my reform programme to empower the men and women in this room has an ulterior motive.

Not true.

While I have the utmost respect for our private prison operators, I also have faith in NOMS, its leaders and its staff to turn around jails. Over the coming months and years, some change will happen quickly.

The effects of other reforms will take longer, as we go further to help the most disadvantaged, and open up opportunities in education and work. NOMS’ greatest resource is its people. Listen to their feedback and encourage their visions. You never know where the next big idea will come from, so empower everyone – up and down the ladder – to contribute and innovate.

By now, you will all know one of my favourite quotes on prisoners, from a speech made in 1910 by Winston Churchill as Home Secretary, when he urged us to find the treasure in the heart of every man. You may be less familiar with another inspirational penal pioneer, a direct contemporary of Churchill but one who campaigned for prison reform on the other side of the Atlantic.

Thomas Mott Osborne was a wealthy Democrat politician who turned to good works, becoming chairman of the New York State Commission on Prison Reform in 1913. No armchair do-gooder, Osborne had by then spent a week undercover in the state’s infamous Auburn high security jail – later writing an electrifying diary about his experience of its harsh regime based on silence, corporal punishment and labour.

His time in Auburn was enough to convince Osborne that in the words of the great Victorian statesman – and one of my own heroes – William Gladstone, it was ‘liberty alone that fits men for liberty’.

He set up a Mutual Welfare League for ex-prisoners to help them find jobs, and, while they were looking, help with housing, food and clothing. His purpose was to ‘bridge the gap’ between their discharge from prison and ultimate rehabilitation. In New York, The Osborne Association still works on behalf of offenders – because the challenges they still face are only too familiar.

Osborne sounds like a man after my own heart. ‘Not until we think of our prisons as, in reality, educational institutions shall we come within sight of a successful system,’ he said of his approach. ‘And by a successful system I mean one that not only ensures a quiet, orderly well-behaved prison, but has genuine life in it – one that restores to society the largest number of intelligent, forceful, honest citizens.’

I particularly warm to Osborne’s rallying cry as he took over as warden of New York’s infamous maximum security jail, Sing Sing, in 1914. ‘We will turn this prison from a scrap heap into a repair shop!’ he declared.

Let me thank you all, once again, for your tireless work keeping the public safe and our prisoners secure. And – now equipped through our reforms with the tools you need to run your own repair shops – thank you in advance for creating a new generation – of intelligent and honest citizens.