I knew of Crispin Blunt MP prior to him becoming prisons minister and I was reasonably hopeful that he would do a good job. After all, in opposition, his boss Ken Clarke had been saying all the right things. Rehabilitation back on the agenda and a strong commitment to drug free prisons was all very encouraging. They seemed to get it. Let’s face it – a rehab revolution and prisons awash with drugs don’t go together. As recently as October of this year Mr Clarke was still asserting,
But now it’s changed. It seems that this government is happy to accept in power that which it criticised in opposition and worse, contrary to what it confirmed so recently. What’s more Ken has left it to his junior minister to do the backtracking in a parliamentary exchange with Liberal MP Jo Swinson. Whether naïve or ingenuous Ms Swinson expressed shock at Mr Blunt’s admission that 7 to 8% of prisoners get their first heroin fix in prison. She said, ‘The very concept of “drug-free wings” shows just how bad the situation has become”.
‘Will he’, she then asked, ‘undertake a thorough review of the supply routes by which drugs are getting into prisons—be that via visitors, staff or the mail system—and act to cut them off, so that all our prisons can be drug-free?’
But prison drug use is going down claimed Mr Blunt, and prisons cannot be hermetically sealed. It was short but it said it all. I recognised the same old civil service briefing line he’s been cued to trot out, as given ministers in the previous administrations. It was Blunt’s moment of uncritical acceptance - the moment the once campaigning minister goes native without realising he is doing it. For the MoJ wanted us (or in this case Jo Swinson MP) to accept two contradictory concepts that clearly still suits them:
So despite all the spin and the hype about the rehabilitation revolution we now know they have nothing new to say at all on the critical subject of drugs supply in prison – just the same tired old lines fed by the civil servants to successive prison ministers in the hope of giving the public the impression that all is well.
I remember hearing the same thing from David Hanson MP (when he was Labour prisons minister) and from the NOMs press office back in 2008. This followed the publication of my Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet called, ‘Inside Out: how to get drugs out of prison’ which triggered a positive response from prison service colleagues. They knew what I was saying to be true but they dared not say for themselves, that for example:
However, it drew fury from a select number of self-interested senior civil servants and some senior prison staff. I was accused of being a mouthpiece for the Tories.
Yes I did give them briefings and they were keen to listen. I was never their mouthpiece. But – predictably, my more cynical friends tell me - now in power the change they promised in opposition is not materialising. I feel sad to have to point this out – maybe the Tories had no real plan for drug policy reform, or maybe they did but just cannot or do not know how to implement it and the civil servants have taken over – who knows. Rebranding rather than real change sadly is order of the day.
After I distributed the Crispin Blunt ‘hermetically sealed prison’ line out, via various social media, a message came bouncing back:
“My colleagues have just been re-branded as recovery coaches! They do and say exactly the same thing as when they were harm reduction workers but now their badges look different”
In 2006, at the “Prisons and Beyond” conference in Leicester, the Head of the NOMS Drug Strategy Team stated that: For every £10 spent on drug treatment [in prison], up to £6 is lost due to illicit drug supply.
If we want to make a difference to prisons (prisoners, and combating potential staff corruption issues) we need a firm policy commitment to keep drugs out. And we need a clear strategy to implement it. It is not rocket science. I set out an intelligence led approach to stemming in-prison drug supply in my pamphlet three years ago. It is still there for Mr. Blunt and Mr. Clarke to read.