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On the 6th of March, Justice Secretary David Gauke delivered his first major speech on prison reform at the Royal Society of Arts in London. Previously the minister for Work and Pensions, Gauke replaced David Lidington during the last round of musical chairs— or if you like, reshuffle. Lidington had only held the position for seven months and had barely warmed his chair before being selected to fill the role left by May’s former deputy Damian Green, albeit under a different title.

The speech was articulate and generally well received, and I’ll go into that to some extent; but with the scale of the crisis engulfing prisons in England and Wales, I’ve observed two things: Both revolving doors; one for offenders and the other for politicians.

The Ministry of Justice has suffered growing pains since the last Labour government reduced the powers of the Lord Chancellor (2003) and created the MoJ in 2007. Last year Ministers told The Sun that the MoJ needs to be broken up because it’s ‘not fit for purpose’. The plan was rumoured to have significant backing amongst Conservative MPs but instead the department undertook yet another changing of the guard.

Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, a charity that campaigns for change in prisons has grown tired with the governments’ politician swapsies, “We’ve had six secretaries of state in seven years,” she said. “No wonder the system is in chaos.”

This is true; our prison system is in chaos. An Observer investigation found that two-thirds of British prisons are providing inmates with inadequate conditions or unacceptable treatment and two in five jails are deemed to be unacceptably unsafe. Last year self-harm reached a record high of 42,837 incidents and assaults have reached a high of 28,165, 7,828 of which were assaults on staff. Overcrowding means we could see prisoners being granted early release, and with the Government’s failing privatisation of probation services the public could be put at serious risk.

Yes, probation has been privatised and yes it was a silly idea. HM Inspectorate of Probation said private companies commissioned during an overhaul of the service in 2014 were failing to properly assess the risk of harm in half of the cases, supervising thousands of released offenders with just one phone call every six weeks. Sky News reported that police and probation officers lost track of 485 registered sex offenders across Britain including rapists and paedophiles.

Some junior officers are reportedly handling more than 200 cases each, despite officials warning that a maximum of 60 can be taken on safely. Worth noting, our national probation service has been graded as ‘Good’.

If you’re struggling to sympathise with the plight of prisoners, you are not alone. Prison reform doesn’t exactly inspire the same kind of public pressures as education, the NHS or Brexit. Prisoners aren’t considered contributing members of society; they’ve committed horrible crimes and consequently they’ve been removed from it.

But consider this; 99.9% of our prisoners today will one day be released back into society, of those serving shorter sentences (less than 12 months) 59% are likely to re-offend. Our prisons are throwing offenders into revolving doors and the cycle seems unbreakable. Re-offenders cost the taxpayer £15 billion a year.

David Gauke said in his maiden speech “I am clear that offenders go to prison as punishment, not for punishment. So, I want prisons to be places of humanity, hope and aspiration. I want prisoners to know that there is a route to a better life….”

I agree, but I’d like to see real practical ideas moving forward.

In the US, several prisons/jails are referred to as correctional facilities. It’s a broad and conceivably cold expression but the word ‘correctional’ is an adjective; these facilities do something—practically their very reason for existing is not only to protect the public but to correct anti-social behaviour and prep offenders for release and reintegration into society.

I’m not suggesting the US has a superior prison system, as it varies from state to state, but what are we actually doing to keep offenders, especially vulnerable offenders from returning to crime?

I grew a little impatient during Gauke’s speech, as when it came to rehabilitation, he leant on prison security and safety far more than I felt was sufficiently required under this subheading. Of course, all the basic human rights apply and clean, drug-free living conditions are imperative… but are prisons delivering life skills for out taxpayer sterling?

Finally—“We will shortly be launching our Education and Employment Strategy that will set out our approach to helping offenders get the skills they need to find a job and avoid the activities that landed them in prison in the first place.”

Weren’t we already doing that? – Not really.

Back in the 70’s with the creation of the Open University (which was welcomed in prisons) hundreds of prisoners found their qualifications and it helped them steer away from crime. The Prison Reform Trust research shows 20-30% of prisoners have learning difficulties and 47% of them report having no qualifications. In the past, many prisoners would have picked up additional qualifications whilst inside, this equipped to earn a living once released and break the cycle of crime. Today however fewer and fewer are taking up further education in our prisons. This could be due to prisoners aged over 24 no longer having access to free level 2 (GCSE equivalent) or above qualifications, and having to apply for loans.

Courses offered by the Prisons Education Trust (PET) typically cost £250 per person. Research by the Ministry of Justice’s Data Lab shows that people who receive a PET course in prison are up to 25% less likely to reoffend compared to a matched control group. Small change compared to £37,000 annual average cost of a prison place.

Education and skills could be, for the inmates at least, a spanner in the revolving doors. But if the new MoJ are only going to pay lip service to reform, our prisons will continue to deteriorate under the £3.7 billion budget cut, and the doors will never stop turning.

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mole125
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mole125

Great well written article.

“This could be due to prisoners aged over 24 no longer having access to free level 2 (GCSE equivalent) or above qualifications, and having to apply for loans.”

That is just crazy, fair enough (possibly) to charge for degree level courses, but preventing prisoners from getting the 5 good GCSEs they need for many jobs is just beyond bonkers. Any idea what proportion of prisoners every actually repay the loans anyway (they are criminals after all.. 😉 )

Spike
Member

Good call for “real practical ideas moving forward.” However, copying the sloganeering of the United States is not one of them. Our various Departments of Corrections do, by that word, acknowledge that nearly all inmates will eventually get out and will need to act better than they did. But generally, the only behavior modification in prison is toward greater obedience to guards and to the inmates who run the gangs. There is a prison library but hardly any real coursework, to match the coursework in crime and grudges provided by being in a population of convicts. The institution’s main Correctional… Read more »

Mr Ecks
Member
Mr Ecks

This isn’t the 19th century and very few are stealing from need. The basic nature of the criminal is hard to change. Be it innate or acquired. Once acquired few change. A few are in prison by reason of a mistake or miscalculation. They can be helped. Most of the criminal crew can’t and don’t want to be helped and will only exploit attempts to help them. Deport overseas crims. Make thieves etc work (and live in poor conditions if they won’t work) until they have paid back what they stole. Thus providing a disincentive to steal more. Use violence… Read more »

Southerner
Member

Random thoughts: If you want to make a dog vicious, you beat it every day. Harsh prisons produce vicious criminals. Despite what the PC brigade may say, violent psychopaths cannot be rehabilitated. Put them in prison for fifteen years and a couple of days after being released they will resume their violent behaviour. Right now a released felon is in the news. Rafael Vasquez, the co-pilot of the Uber that killed a pedestrian in Tempe, had two criminal convictions. The NYT story on the incident sensibly decided not to name Vasquez, but this is the exception. It appears that a… Read more »

So Much For Subtlety
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So Much For Subtlety

FFS. This is true; our prison systems are in chaos. An Observer investigation found that two-thirds of British prisons are providing inmates with inadequate conditions or unacceptable treatment and two in five jails are deemed to be unacceptably unsafe. For some definitions of “inadequate”. Frankly if they have hot water they are being treated too well. Last year self-harm reached a record high of 42,837 incidents and assaults have reached a high of 28,165, 7,828 of which assaults on staff. Well meaning idiots stopped the prison service punishing prisoners who self harm. It used to be a few days of… Read more »

Ljh
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Ljh

Good stuff but my pet peeve doesn’t feature: all those repeat offenders who never get to prison, the shoplifters, angermanagement course referees, suspended sentence ones who have not been deemed sufficient threat to society to go behind bars but who collectively make life worse for the law abiding but provide ample materiel to employ rafts of social workers and related selfcongratulatory lefties. Get them off the streets and out of the gene pool as cheaply as possible. If prison isn’t a deterrent we’re not doing it right.

Gamecock
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Gamecock

That is the U.S. definition of revolving door justice. The bigger the town, the more likely the perp won’t be punished. He’ll be out of jail before the cop finishes his paperwork.

And he’ll escalate and escalate due to no consequences until he commits murder. Note that 54% of U.S. murders are committed by black men, who represent 6.5% of the population. The liberal courts think they are helping young blacks by allowing them to skate on lesser crimes.

They are giving them a life sentence.

Spike
Member

Frankly if they have hot water they are being treated too well. Good stuff aye, but with the selection of the new CIA chief, the Democratic Party is about to rev up its timeless nonsense that Discomfort Is Torture. Some of my conservative friends revel in the anecdote of poorly heated Japanese prisons. I think any convict should wake up knowing that his day will be uncomfortably hot or cold, uncomfortably but not dangerously, not that he would get to pick. More modestly, the crews picking up roadside trash dressed in pink had a profound effect, likewise the innovations of… Read more »

So Much For Subtlety
Guest
So Much For Subtlety

Off Topic I know, but interesting anyway: “In the latest judicial setback for the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy was placed in custody on Tuesday as part of an investigation that he received millions of euros in illegal campaign financing from the regime of the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. . . . Sarkozy has vehemently and repeatedly denied wrongdoing in the case, which involves funding for his winning 2007 presidential campaign.” Interesting times. It looks like France has changed from the days a French President could sit down to dinner with an African dictator who bribed him with huge… Read more »

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

Like almost everything that happens within the French ‘judicial’ system, this is almost entirely political. It may be coming from the top or it may be the local DA (equivalent) trying to make a name for themselves. I’d be surprised if anything comes of it.

Tim Newman
Member

I’d like to know how many criminals in British prisons are foreign-born. In the US it is a staggering number. Anyone foreign convicted of a serious crime in the UK should be given two options: 25 years without parole, or a one-way ticket home and a lifetime ban on returning. If they show up illegally, we can hand them over to SMFS for hanging.

allthegoodnamesaretaken
Guest
allthegoodnamesaretaken

“or a one-way ticket home and a lifetime ban on returning.” With the bill sent to their embassy.

Steve
Guest
Steve

Wow Charlotte, you are poking the hornet’s nest with this one. Over the last two hundred years, prisons have gone from squalid cess pits to something akin to Butlins and everything in between. Depending on which side of the political divide people are on the solutions are polar opposites. We have the kid glove reformers and the hard labour capital punishment solutions, these have all been tried in the past, but hey, here we are. Your point about the government ministers is a very valid one. I think it must be seen a poison chalice and until we have a… Read more »

allthegoodnamesaretaken
Guest
allthegoodnamesaretaken

Spike: “More modestly, the crews picking up roadside trash dressed in pink had a profound effect, likewise the innovations of Sheriff Joe Arpaio”

His levels of recidivism were no lower than average. Whilst it gave the punishment brigade a stiffy, it didn’t actually make any difference.

Gamecock
Guest
Gamecock

‘Re-offenders cost the taxpayer £15 billion a year.’

Then hang ’em.

Never lose sight of why governments exist while discussing prison reform: for the mutual protection of citizens. Government owes its allegiance the citizens, NOT the prisoners.