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Transforming our failing prisons

Our prisons have been in the news lately and it was bad news involving overcrowding, drugs, violence, escaping prisoners, budget cuts and inadequate staffing. Prison staffs are not allowed to strike but this month they held mass meetings that were a strike in all but name. What’s going wrong and how can it be fixed?

Prison serves four purposes:  to deter people from committing crimes, to punish those convicted for committing them, to reform and rehabilitate convicted prisoners and to protect society from violent and dangerous criminals. We have the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe and our prisons are seriously overcrowded. The prison population is currently around 85,000 and expected to rise to 90,000 by 2020 unless there are changes in sentencing policies.  Sentences are getting longer, more convicts are being given indeterminate sentences and 46% of ex-prisoners are reconvicted within one year of release.

The problems caused by overcrowding have been exacerbated by cuts in staff numbers during the era of austerity and by the widespread use of psycho-active drugs smuggled into prisons, sometimes by the use of drones. This has led to violence and gangs in prisons. 290 inmates died in the last year and there were 2,197 prisoner- on -prisoner assaults and 625 assaults on staff. There were also 1,935 fires. The Government response has been the allocation of £104 million to employ an additional 2,500 staff but more radical solutions may be required.

First, is part of the problem that too many people are being sent to prison? 12% of inmates are on remand awaiting trial. 60% of them are accused of non-violent crimes and 10% of these are subsequently acquitted. Another 15% were subsequently given non-custodial sentences. Does this suggest that 21,000 prisoners on remand might not need to be in prison at all? Clearly this is for the Courts to decide but wouldn’t more use of tagging keep people awaiting trial for non-violent crimes reduce the overcrowding?

 Second, the re-offending rates suggest that the prisons are failing to reform and rehabilitate. Prison has separated the convicts from their families’ support. Too many may leave prison hardened by the experience with little prospect of earning an adequate, honest income. That is beginning to change. 10% of the staff of the shoe repairers, Timpson’s, are ex-prisoners. Greggs, Marks and Spencer’s, the Co-op, DHL, Virgin, First Direct and PLIAS have followed their lead. James Timpson says a third of prisoners are ‘right for work’ and some have even become managers in his shops. Is there a case for making greater use of the Release on Temporary Licence scheme to free suitable prisoners to work during the week but incarcerated at weekends? This could make them employable on release and in receipt of an income and the positive attitudes that go with that once they have completed their sentences.

These suggestions were Michael Gove’s when he was Justice Secretary. He also planned to build nine new prisons and close the oldest ones. He identified six ‘reform’ prisons in which the Governor has greater freedom to run the prison as s/he chose. A thorough transformation of prison education was another essential means of reducing re-offending. Recruiting a higher quality of prison staff and publishing league tables that show which prisons have the lowest rates of reoffending were others.

Jesus words, “I was in prison and you came to visit me”(Matthew 25:36) would suggest that any measures that made prison work and helped prisoners to go straight on release would have Christian support.

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