Has a Texan gangster persuaded Gove to reform our jails?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (13th October, 2015)

Alfred Adams admits that he was a menace to society: a cocaine-addicted gangster who did anything to feed his habit, from pimping and theft to selling drugs and shooting people.

His body bears the scars of stabbings, while he retains the intense stare that ensured his survival on the streets for almost three decades of drug-fuelled depravity.

‘It was real dark – we did a lot of crime,’ he told me, pointing out prostitutes and prowling lookouts for gangs as we walked around his former hangout in Dallas, Texas.

This friendly 60-year-old, a former construction worker, freely told me about his first killing when he began working as a ‘watchman’ for a Jamaican drug gang, shooting three people who tried to attack their drug den.

I asked him how many other killings he had taken part in. ‘Several – I don’t have a number for them,’ he replied, before adding: ‘It’s hurting in my heart what I was involved in.’

A former prison inmate with a long criminal record, Adams was convicted of heinous offences. He served more than ten years inside for drugs and theft offences. But he has been out of prison and free of drugs for over six years.

And as a free man he is now the articulate poster boy for bold criminal justice reforms launched by ultra-conservative Texans that have swept the United States.

The Lone Star State has long been infamous for its tough approach to crime and locking up people – yet it is now emptying prisons and pouring money into rehabilitating crooks. The result is falling crime, reduced reoffending and lower costs for taxpayers.

Which is why I find myself introducing Justice Secretary Michael Gove to Adams, whose stories of hustling and hanging out with drug gangs sound like scenes from TV’s Breaking Bad.

They make an unlikely pair: Gove, in his suit and tie, asking polite questions in his precise Scottish accent of a drawling American with a scarred face who a few years back might have mugged him – or worse.

But their meeting could change the face of British justice. For Gove’s fact-finding trip to Texas, where he met gangsters, rapists and other reformed criminals like Adams, came just days before David Cameron put prison reform at the heart of his Government’s agenda with an appeal to end the ‘sterile lock-’em-up’ debate in his party conference speech.

Gove’s trip comes at a time when Britain has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe, costing taxpayers £2 billion a year – yet almost half the inmates go on to reoffend.

For three days I filmed him exclusively for BBC Panorama as we toured a youth offenders’ centre, where Gove met teenage murderers and child abusers carrying out carpentry and metalwork, then a specialist drug court, run by a larger-than-life Texan judge who swears in court while bantering with criminals, where Gove pronounced himself impressed by the stories of redemption he heard there.

Alfred Adams talked movingly to Gove of being given the chance to salvage his life from the ‘wet, slimy hole’ of crime – and told how addiction even drove him to take crack cocaine in hospital after having his face slashed open during a fight.

He said life on the street was far removed from the Hollywood image: ‘Being on the beaches with the half-naked women, drinking and drugging, seems like fun, but out there it’s dark, very dark, and I always wanted to get out.’

Yet Adams insisted prison failed to curb his criminality. ‘All I was learning was how to become a better criminal,’ he drawled.

Now he is free of drugs and spends his days gardening, keeping tropical fish and helping others fighting their demons to escape from crime. ‘Those are the things I longed to do as a kid but I lost my way,’ he said.

Gove told me that such tales were among the most powerful testimonies he had heard about how the right interventions could redeem people. ‘We’ve got to look at the way prisons are operating,’ said Gove. ‘The principal purpose of prison is to redeem and rehabilitate, but almost half of those who are in prison go on to reoffend.’

His stance marks a massive change from previous Tory leader Michael Howard’s mantra that ‘prison works’. Yet it reflects frustration felt at high rates of recidivism, forcing a search for fresh solutions.

The reforms in conservative ‘Hang ’em High’ Texas began a decade ago when the state was faced with spending $2 billion (£1.3 billion) building seven new prisons. It had seen prison populations rise sixfold over three decades, leaving one in 20 adults behind bars, on parole or on probation.

This typified a national trend that led a country with 5 per cent of the global population to have 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners.

Then, in 2005, veteran Republican Jerry Madden was put in charge of the state Corrections Committee and told to find ways to stop spending so much money on prisons.

His solution was simple: divert cash into schemes using evidence-based probation to decide who was likely to reoffend, then confront core problems behind crime such as broken homes, substance abuse and mental health issues. The first year alone saw savings of almost £300 million.

Madden sees a difference between intrinsically bad people and those that anger society with persistent crime. ‘Why don’t we take the ones we are afraid of and keep them locked up for a long time? And those that we are mad at figure out a way to change them so we would no longer be mad at them?’

Among key weapons in sorting out such people are specialist courts, such as the Dallas drug court run by Judge Bobby Francis – a typical Texan republican who wears cowboy boots, owns scores of guns and has an office filled with skins of animals he has shot.

Unlike most judges, Francis swears freely in court and banters with offenders about sports games. His court sessions are like a cross between group therapy and a reality television show, with applause for people doing well and small prizes for star performers.

Yet he has seen more than eight in ten offenders ‘graduate’ from his court, including Alfred Adams. ‘I think it works because me and my staff truly want these folks to succeed,’ he told me, adding that his jokes and profanities were a way of connecting with his charges.

Each offender must spend several months in a secure unit, where they dry out and start therapy, before attending court on a weekly basis.

The judge and his 23-strong team help them make a fresh start in life, from assisting with housing and jobs, to sorting out family issues complicated by years of addiction.

Francis, a father of two daughters, believes he is really offering parenting to people from chaotic backgrounds. ‘There is no deep secret to what we do. If you can be a good parent, you can do this.’

He was shocked when he began dealing with drink-sodden, drug-addled offenders. ‘These folks didn’t grow up like I did or you did. They didn’t have two parents, living together, raising them up – they had what I call genetic contributors,’ said the judge.

Harsh words. But it is hard to disagree when offenders tell you stories such as the man whose mother routinely had sex with strangers in front of him, then was introduced to crystal meth by his father.

Gove and I sat with the offenders in court. Afterwards, it was astonishing to hear a middle-aged addict tell the Justice Secretary that he saw Judge Francis as a father figure. ‘I call him my daddy,’ he said. ‘It’s just like a man taking care of a little kid that their dad don’t want.’

This is a man with a long-term criminal record talking about a judge with the power to send him away to prison for the rest of his life.

Most female offenders have suffered sexual abuse. One woman told the judge he was the first authority-figure in her life not to seek sex with her. Another pulled out all her top teeth with pliers during a crystal meth session, underlining their self-harming activities.

But this is no soft option. I saw four people shuffling into court in prison garb, their arms shackled to their waist. They had failed routine drug and alcohol tests so were sanctioned with a few days in jail.

Offenders know that if they fail to sort out their lives they face years inside prison. Judge Francis told me of sentencing one man who struggled to curb his addictions to 35 years’ imprisonment. I watched as another alcoholic was warned he was facing ‘two to ten’ years.

Francis even told one young girl with a big blue triangle tattooed on her face not to get any more markings while in his court. ‘I’ve never heard of an employer saying they always looked to hire people covered in tattoos,’ he said.

This judge may be unusual, but he is not unique. There are similar specialist courts for women, for offenders with mental health problems, for military veterans and for tackling domestic violence.

And as several experts told me, there is nothing soft about forcing criminals to face up to personal problems that plague society.

Similar innovations are being tested inside prisons. I went to one women’s unit where offenders train dogs to assist injured veterans, which teaches the inmates discipline and teamwork. Only one person on the programme has reoffended so far.

The reforms have seen incarceration rates fall sharply, while cutting costs for taxpayers, since community supervision is 17 times cheaper than sending someone to jail.

Three prisons have been closed, along with nine of the state’s 14 youth offender units. Only the most serious juvenile offenders now go behind bars; the numbers held have fallen from 4,500 in 2007 to just 1,050.

Yet these moves have been accompanied by significant drops in crime – with violent and property crime falling faster than the US average.

Such initiatives have transformed the criminal justice debate in America, with some of the most conservative figures in the country such as Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich joining the Right On Crime movement to promote prison reform and rehabilitation of offenders.

Other hardline Republican states have adopted similar measures, including Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. The politics of crime have been so detoxified that three months ago Barack Obama became the first serving president to visit a federal prison.

As one Republican ideologue pointed out, prison reform is a Right-wing idea whether you are a fiscal conservative who wants to save money, a libertarian who is sceptical over the effectiveness of the state, or on the religious Right with firm belief in redemption.

Gove admitted being blown away by what he had seen in Texas – especially in the Dallas drug court. Britain has flirted with such concepts before, but now the Minister wants to see these ideas spread across Britain to crack the cycle of crime.

I understand that he plans specialist courts for alcoholism, drug addiction and domestic violence. Just as in Texas, the courts will focus on lower-risk offenders at first.

At the end of his trip, I asked Gove if he was the man to transform the criminal justice debate in Britain, just as Right-wing politicians have done in America.

‘We’ve got to have space for fresh thinking,’ he replied carefully. ‘How can we take that essence and ensure that when individuals are in court, there is a teachable moment that they recognise they’ve done wrong – and if custody may not be the answer for them, that there are other things we can do?’

So will Gove and the Government have the bottle – and the British public the stomach – to turn around decades of penal policy focused so heavily on retribution?

After three days watching the Minister praised by Cameron in his conference speech as ‘the great Conservative reformer’ who is going to transform prisons, my sense is that there is real determination in Downing Street on this issue of social justice.

When I asked Judge Francis how to persuade British politicians, his reply was straightforward: ‘Tell them to grow some friggin’ backbone.’ As he proved in his previous education job, that is one thing Gove has never lacked.

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