PRISON REFORM

Jack Straw’s latest perorations on crime and punishment fall well short of a reasoned argument, based as they are on the emotive knee jerk journalism of the tabloids.

I refer to his bald statement that prisons should not be holiday camps, they are there expressly to punish offenders, and too much time and effort is spent on them and not enough on the victims of crime.

His speech is set against the ever increasing prison population, about which more than enough has already been written, but his emphasis on punishment as opposed to rehabilitation is disappointing and short sighted.

No doubt there are researchers out there, and statisticians of every hue, who will tell us that the rate of reconviction of offenders released from prison is in the region of 60%. That is a staggering and hugely depressing statistic, and the cost to the public purse must be equally staggering.

I visit prisons on a regular basis in the course of my professional practice, and I have yet to find one single prison that can be equated with a holiday camp. The regime is restrictive, prisoners’ movements are tracked every minute of every day, there is a complete absence of a caring environment, and rather like the worst of state schools, the staff have a siege mentality, simply trying to get through the day without a major disruptive incident. It’s all about keeping the lid on a boiling cauldron.

Don’t get me wrong. There are an enormous number of dedicated staff, from prison officers to probation workers to course providers through to chaplains and counsellors, all doing a herculean task with little reward, but they too are fighting a system that doesn’t work.

For the most part, the prison population comes from the most disadvantaged sections of our society, those from broken and violent homes, with few if any educational qualifications, most are barely literate, with no employment prospects above the most basic, like wheeling supermarket trolleys across the car park, and with no sense of direction or purpose in life. So a period of enforced incarceration should provide the State with a golden opportunity to improve their lot and return them to Society as better men and women. Above all, to give them hope. The present system is simply setting them up to fall.

You achieve nothing if you dehumanise offenders from the moment they walk through the prison gates. A civilised society should aim to give them hope and fulfilment, with the deprivation of their liberty sufficient punishment for their crimes.

The whole question of crime and punishment should be revisited, to include the courts and the very debatable approach now adopted where the imposition of a custodial sentence is the sentence of first resort, not because the judges are in favour of it, but because the Government tells them.

By making the prison environment more user friendly, and more compassionate, you remove at a stroke the hostility simmering below the surface. If you treat prisoners as human beings, with needs and aspirations, they are more likely to behave like human beings. By filling their days with meaningful activities pitched at their intellectual level, and by offering them a real chance to improve their lot, they won’t come back.

So enough of this political posturing. Try a little kindness and compassion, and let the tabloids go hang!

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david

David is an English barrister, writer, public performer and keynote speaker. His full profile can be found on his website.

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