Opinion

Why The Big Issue has put together a prison special

What happens when every programme to help prisoners shudders to a halt? When they are kept in cells 23 hours a day?

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The crew will visit 15 prisons in England and Wales. Image: Caroline Martins/Pexels

There are fewer than 100 whole-life tariff prisoners in British jails. That means that almost every single one of those 87,000 people currently inside will be released.

The penal service and how it deals with those in jail generates visceral responses.

You may take the view that sentences should be longer, that prison as punishment needs to punish more, that the population needs protecting. Or you might think the balance between jail time as deterrent and jail time as a chance for rehabilitation is wrong, because something bad has happened in the past to drive people there.

Regardless, the release is a fact. It’s inescapable.

There are a huge number of charities and organisations who work with prisoners, who attempt to help them on the inside so they are ready – and ready not to reoffend – when they get out. Many of these cover basic essentials like literacy programmes. Over half of prisoners are functionally illiterate. In the UK population as a whole around 16 per cent of people have very poor literacy ability.

Covid was as big a shock to those behind bars as to us outside

Obviously correlation is not causation. But come on, addressing this issue will clearly help those in jail and society as a whole.

So what happens when you can’t? What happens when every programme designed to help prisoners while inside, and readjust when outside, shudders to a halt? And what happens when prisoners are kept in cells for at least 23 hours a day? What if good work has been done, but then it moves into retreat? What about their families who can’t get in to see them? And what of the guards and the pressures they face in these situations?

Covid was as big a shock to those behind bars as to us outside. But we don’t hear about it. We at The Big Issue were keen to get some answers, because they were in short supply.

This special edition of The Big Issue is not an attempt to moralise. We know there are some very dangerous people who need to be kept from society. There are also scared people who are in a bad situation because of bad decisions. We wanted to hear the voice of those inside. If we’re to understand the impact that coronavirus has had and how it may change them, we need to listen.

Because sooner or later those inside will be out.

Get an advance digital copy of the prisons edition by signing up for a digital subscription. Get a subscription from your local vendor through our online map.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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