During the last week of Trinity term, Oxford MSc Criminology students Alice Flett and Luke Mouton met virtually with Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, to discuss her career, opinions on the state of policy change in the UK, and a number of current issues in criminal justice. The following passage is a transcription of their discussion.

Alice: What first sparked your interest in criminal justice and penal reform?

Frances: Have you heard of nominative determinism? It is essentially the notion that one’s name guides them, at least to some extent, towards their career or vocation. ‘Frances’ means freedom, and ‘Crook’ of course means criminal, so I suppose I was destined to advocate on behalf of those caught up in the criminal justice system.

More seriously, growing up I had always been interested in social justice. My first job was as a special needs teacher in Liverpool, and my second job was as Campaigns Coordinator for Britain at Amnesty International, which brought me into the arena of criminal justice reform specifically. I came to the Howard League in 1986 and have been here ever since.

I think that dealing with questions of justice, fairness, powers of the state, and conflict of the individual with the powers of the state, are probably the most important questions that we can deal with. Socrates tried, Plato tried, Aristotle tried—right from the birth of democracy we began to understand the gravity of these questions. Specifically, how the state deals with an individual who dissents. The Howard League examines these questions, challenges government when necessary, and fights on behalf of the marginalised every day as an independent, non-governmental voice. Collectively, this is what drew me here.


Luke: The Howard League’s largest overarching goal is of course substantive, non-punitive policy reform in the UK and throughout the world, but what would you say some of its more specific goals and challenges are at the moment?

Frances: The two largest difficulties we are dealing with at the moment are the sheer number of people in prison and prison conditions—and these problems are certainly not unique to Britain. The Howard League works simultaneously at two levels: the national level, where we work towards legislative change, and the smaller, more individual level where we advocate on behalf of social causes and represent individuals in Court. We are a registered charity and a non-governmental organization, but we are also a law firm. Every day our offices get calls from young people in prison who need representation. Many of these people are dealing with issues associated with parole, property, resettlement, and potential homelessness on release, but we aim to help in a wide range of situations.

All of this is continuing to happen at a time when many in our government are loudly saying, ‘Be radical! Think differently about government. Don’t be afraid to push for equity and social justice’. This sentiment seems to stop at criminal justice reform given that the penal state has not changed a great deal since the 18th century. So, we really have many objectives to work towards at the moment, but the sheer number of people in British prisons and their abysmal conditions are the two most pressing challenges we face.  


Alice: What would you consider to be the largest barrier to substantive policy change in the UK at the moment with respect to prison reform?

Frances: It’s just abject cowardice on the part of government. They are so remarkably terrified of a backlash from the right-wing media, and they cannot find a way to get over that. If we could get past that and start trying to do what is right, progress would be much easier to come by.


Luke: We certainly have no shortage of government cowardice in the United States as well. You’ll have to forgive me for this next question as it’s a bit of a big one. I am nevertheless curious to hear your thoughts. How would you begin to solve the gigantic, hideous mess that is the US criminal justice system?

Frances: Well, there are certainly many different kinds of arguments that you can make. In this country I do not use the financial argument. I think the financial argument, that it is simply too expensive is not convincing as people do not really know what it costs. It depends who you are talking to. I think the financial argument is more convincing in the States because it just got so expensive. I remember reading several years ago that California had been spending more on its prison system than it was on education.

In this country, I do not use the financial argument with the general public as most people have no idea how much the penal state costs in the UK and they might also say, “well, let them eat bread and water” as a way of cutting costs. They might also say that in the States, but I think the financial argument has reached many policy-makers simply because it just got so large and expensive. It’s incredibly difficult to say what will really move the needle in the US. I think it ultimately depends on who you’re talking to and whether you’re speaking in the most persuasive way to those individuals.

There is then the Black Lives Matter and ‘New Jim Crow’ argument; that there are more black men and women in prison than were ever enslaved at any point in America’s history. There is also the individual argument that you need powerful change agents to get things accomplished. Ivanka Trump has expressed some interest in criminal justice reform, so in situations like that you may have an ‘in’ to get things done.


Alice: Luke and I read one of your most recent blog posts which argued that significant changes surrounding the use of force in prisons are desperately needed. You spoke about how despite the reduction of the number of children in prison in the last decade, by nearly two-thirds, the number of use of force incidents per year against children remains similar to levels seen more than a decade ago. Why do you think this is?


Frances: Use of force in adult prisons is different from the use of force in children’s prisons. In adult prisons, there will unfortunately be times when prisoners have weapons, are involved in an altercation with other prisons, or are attacking members of prison staff, and so physical intervention becomes necessary. In children’s prisons, the use of force is never justified. Children cannot and should not be dealt with by force from prison officers by any means.  

The relative increase in use of force incidents in prison over the last decade, despite a drop in the number of children in prison, can probably be attributed to the relaxing of training standards with prison staff and a lack of required qualifications. Most prison officers are wholly unqualified. You do not have to have a single GCSE to be a prisoner officer in the United Kingdom. In Germany, for example, prisons are run almost entirely by highly trained professionals—psychologists, teachers, psychiatrists—but in the UK prison officers are ‘turn-keys’ and can be anyone at all. In Norway, all prison officers are qualified to degree level, so they are expected to engage with complicated tasks and handle situations in the most appropriate and effective manner.

Prison officers in Britain are expected to do quite difficult things, but they are neither educated nor trained. Dealing with difficult children in a closed environment, many of whom have come from troubled backgrounds and have mental health issues, is understandably difficult. But, we should equip officers to deal with difficult situations without violence or the use of force. If our officers were better trained and educated and qualification thresholds were raised, we would undoubtedly see a decrease in the use of force in children’s prisons. The use of force against children is wrong and we should not do it. We should not do it ever. The staff simply do not have the skills management, or their own sills in order to deal with the conflict, and so they resort to violence – as indeed do to the young people incarcerated.


Luke: In another recent blog post in May, you spoke about calls for a planned early release programme for those coming to the end of their sentences, to ease the pressure on overcrowding and why that is desirable: including general safety, work and visits to name a few. Why do you think the government are so resistant to implementing such a policy?

Frances: I do not know why – I genuinely do not know why. I think it is cowardice. But oddly, it is usually the other way around. Usually the government will announce a policy and they will look as though it was quite a minor thing and usually behind that there is something more radical. What this government did was that they announced that they were going to release lots of people and then did not do it. When they announced they were going to release people, they did not receive a public backlash because it was going to be so cautious. It was releasing people, slightly earlier who were going to be released anyway.

But I genuinely do not know why they did not go through with it. I think it may be partly due to the people not having anywhere to go thereafter. There is a real problem of prisoners going out of prison to homelessness and people are still being released to homelessness today. The systems that are not in place, do not support their release. They could have released them but they would not have had anywhere to go, or because of the destruction of probation, the system is not able to support or plan the release.


Alice: Why are the Government seemingly more interested in spending more money on prisons, time and time again, rather than supporting people post-release? As you said people are walking out to homelessness following release. This is such a draconian eventuality which does not look good on the Government either. So, why are they so reluctant to simply help and support these individuals?

Frances: I think they think that they are helping people. If you listen to the rhetoric of this government, it is exactly the same as what previous governments have said. They say they are going to build new prisons which will be wonderful and will help turn people’s lives around where they will have lots of education and training and they will be released better-off than before the went into prison. That these prisons will be quite different to anything that we have had before.

The trouble is, is that this is never true. That is exactly what was said when HMP Pentonville was built 145 years ago. Look at Pentonville now. But when you build a prison it remains generation after generation after generation. They do not close prisons. I genuinely do not think that politicians think that prisons are going to be built that will be awful and where people will die. But that is what is going to happen.

Luke: How optimistic are you that the government easing lockdown on Saturday in the UK is going to coincidence with it increasing its efforts to provide additional ways for prisoners to have contact with their families, which has been identified as a problem within UK prisons during the current pandemic?

Frances: There is a plan with prisons but it is slower than the rest of the country. A company called ‘Purple Visits’ is putting in place technology so people can visit family members in prison virtually. The problem is that it is taking extremely long periods of time to implement and the technology has not worked. A Freedom of Information Request has been submitted to determine which prisons are actually getting it and when.

I am not against virtual visits. I think they will be good if they are in addition to, not instead of. There have however been real problems in implementing it. Prisons I have visited recently in Northern Ireland have big television screens around the prison and Skype on demand. This means young people can Skype their family at any time. It is an addition which is great as it means that if you want to talk to your family to help you with your homework or if you are not feeling good and would like to talk to them, you can readily get in touch with them. Ultimately, in addition is fine, but in reality it has been instead of.

I have not seen any evidence that suggests face-to-face visits are going to happen any time soon in the near future. It might do in some prisons. Some prisons have huge open outdoor spaces where socially-distant visits could take place. It is just that they do not make that happen.

Alice: Are you optimistic that the state of the prison system as it currently is will improve within the next five years?

Frances: No, not at all. What is interesting is that as the Courts have not been sitting, the prison population has reduced by over 3,000. The number of children in prison has gone down to approximately 600. The number of both men and women incarcerated in adult prisons have also gone down quite noticeably. The worry is that when the Courts start sitting again, particularly in the Magistrate’s Court, is that they will go stir-crazy and start sending people to prison again. So who knows. But if we keep the prison population numbers down, it at least does what the government keeps talking about in making ‘breathing space’ in prison where we still have two prisoners in cells designed for single occupancy. But it can go in the right direction, provided that we monitor the decisions of the Courts.


Luke: What message do you have for upcoming students entering the arena of criminal justice and policy reform, and how can they best contribute towards making meaningful change?

Frances: Get involved. The justice system needs educated thinkers. It needs people who have the confidence to challenge and the intellectual knowledge to challenge. If you have principles as well as education, then join the system somehow. Work in the voluntary sector, work in the police, whatever it may be. Get involved. It is a civic responsibility.