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If we're going to reform prisons, we should start with the prisoners

The money spent on prisons should be treated as an investment in the people we incarcerate to break the cycle of offending and punishment

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Photo: Anton Dmitriev on Unsplash

I was in a debate in Parliament last week about prisons. Having been gathering evidence recently about the true cost of poverty, I was interested in what it cost to keep people in prison. What support was given for the reform of prisoners while inside and what help there was to integrate them back into society when they left. It’s a sorry affair. With recidivism levels in the first year after release reaching about 40 per cent, with it costing £44,000 per annum to keep each person in prison, we don’t seem to be getting value for money.  

For an investment of more than £3 billion, we have almost 90,000 prisoners and rehabilitation has not been put top of the list of priorities. Why? You spend £44,000 on putting them away; would it not make sense that as many as possible come out reformed?  

Ten years ago, I spoke at a prison governors’ conference and asked how many of them prioritised rehabilitation. It was way down the list. I was astonished at the desire they had to reform people, but the prison service was under such pressure that there were few resources or officers to carry out the task. 

Frightening figures – like 60 per cent of prisoners’ children themselves ending up offending – stalk the reform debate. A revolving door seems to be in operation. And with 70,000 people released from prisons every year, the effect on society of the release of unreformed prisoners is immense. Friday releases were also an issue. Released when they could not connect with support services over the weekend, they would often end up homeless and sometimes reoffending. 

Common sense does not rule in the realms of the criminal justice system. So the debate last week was a timely chance for the government to explain its plans and for members to make their critical points.  

Regular readers of my column can guess the kind of things I said in my allocated six minutes. Why do we continue to produce people who end up as criminals? Why do we not concentrate on stopping the flow, turning off the social tap that produces the problems that prisons are created to address? It’s an emergency response to a social problem to lock someone up.

The biggest common factor I have found in the prisons and young offender institutions is how badly the inmates did at school. How predictable their failure was. Most people who do badly at school slip effortlessly into the low-paid, low-wage economy, or end up on low support through social security. The other commonality is the mental health issue, and the drug dependency; both signs that we are not preventing or supporting people enough in these areas.  

Overall you could say we have a system in place: poverty breeds crime and social dislocation affects mental health, and the urge to use drugs to forget life’s emptiness can be overwhelming. And at the end of it, if you are part of the minority who fall into crime, there is a prison and justice system there to scoop you up. But the problem is that many of those who end up in the criminal justice system will not be changed into people who can win control of their lives. The prison system is a warehousing of people, never a challenge to their wretchedness. Out they come and soon they are back in the defeated life that caused them to get drawn into crime in the first place.  

Rehabilitation is the big issue. You cannot run a system that fails and then ejects people out into society to continue their downward spiral. Their poverty trap. Just giving people somewhere to live and a small amount of money to get by will never get them out of the milieu of poverty. Their wellbeing, confidence and skill building need a boost, and their chances improved by skilling them away from poorly paid work and crime. If effort is put in by government and the prison service you can see the possibility of a kind of renaissance. But it will take investment and thoughtfulness. It will take a realisation that if you fail to support and help develop people they will be a burden for decades ahead, and hundreds of thousands of pounds will be spent simply administering to their basic needs.  

But there are always green shoots to be seen, even in the arid grounds of prison delivery. Green shoots like Swansea jail, that’s getting a truck simulator that will mean people can learn to drive a truck when they leave. Or the employment boards set up in prisons where local employers can offer jobs to inmates before their release. Finding accommodation for them before leaving, stopping the self-defeating situation where roughly 40 per cent of people leaving prison are unsure of where they are going to live.  

Programmes where children and partners can come and see prisoners and build family bonds which reduces the chances of their children offending, according to some evidence. Health, employment, education and skill training working together to help ensure that when you leave prison you will possibly have been reformed, and not simply held in a kind of social quarantine that produces only frustration and a waste of resources. 

We were promised new thinking in the summing-up by the minister. New prisons where rehabilitation is the top concern. More engagement before release. Ending the mockery of putting people on the streets after release, only for them to stay there.  

Turning that £44,000 into investment in human lives so that they can be changed for ever. We live in a
non-sustainable situation, and watch the damage to society because the illness of crime is not addressed but kept locked up and out of sight for a while. And then the problems return when the release date comes along.  

The green shoots show that prisons can be reformed so that prisoners can come out reformed. A lack of money for reform, though, will stymie all efforts.  Just think of all the money you could save over the decades if reform was seen as the essential part of prison life. Not just punishment and being deprived of freedom.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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