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Making prison work

The Prime Minister made an important speech on Monday about crime and prisons. Commentators have suggested that it represented a lurch to the right, designed to placate the traditional wing of his party. 

That is to misread the speech. He eschewed the rhetoric of both right and left to recognise that whilst serious criminals should be sent to prison, they should be reformed there so that they are released back into the community as responsible, law-abiding citizens. The real issues are why that is not happening already and how it can be achieved in the future.

Prison has four functions: to punish offenders, protect the public from dangerous criminals, deter crime and reform offenders. The challenge is to achieve the right balance between these functions and that is clearly not happening. 90% of sentenced offenders have previous convictions, 44% have at least 15. Re-offending is higher amongst those sent to prison than amongst those given non-custodial sentences. Our prisons are overflowing but failing to find the right balance. It costs £62,400 p.a. to keep an offender there so prisons are wasting tax payers’ money.

Some facts about prisoners help to explain why prisons are failing. 20-30% of prisoners have learning difficulties, 60% have basic problems with reading and writing and 50% were excluded from school. The potential capacity of these offenders to obtain and hold down a proper job is limited and crime is their easy  alternative. 10% have serious mental health problems and too many have a drug problem. Worse still one in eight prisoners develops a drug problem in prison.

To make prison work we need to find appropriate non-custodial sentences for offenders who are not a threat to the public, keep them in the community and help them to learn how to be responsible citizens. That is particularly true of female offenders with children. Their innocent families are punished as much as the guilty mothers. Ken Clarke was right that short sentences are an expensive waste because six months is too short a time to teach new skills and inculcate new attitudes.

For those who need to go to prison, basic education and the acquisition of job-related skills should be a priority. The money saved by locking up fewer people would help to pay for this. Timpsons, the shoe repairers, have a training workshop in Liverpool prison and recruits ex-offenders on release. David Cameron urged other employers to follow this lead. What prisoners most need on release is a job and the wage and self-respect that this gives them. They also need the social controls of normal family life so it makes sense for them to serve their sentence as close to their family homes as possible. An imaginative scheme has been piloted in Brixton prison to involve wives and partners in preparation for release.

None of this is to be soft on crime and criminals but if it makes prison work, everyone gains – the reformed offender, his family and society.