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You don’t have to be a bleeding heart to see our prison system isn’t working

Giving people inside the chance of improving on their pre-prison life and mentality is one of the most wonderful sights to see
Wormwood Scrubs is one of the more notorious British prisons. Catholic Church of England and Wales/Flickr

In the opening pages of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Pip, the main character, confronts a convict in a churchyard, escaped from the Hulks. The Hulks were old ships converted to prison ships, that lay near shore and were dreadful places to keep people.

That was the early 19th century when prison was all about life-threatening punishment and the cruel abuse of power over the lives of wrongdoers. As the century moved on, conditions were marginally improved and land-based prisons replaced many of the old ships.

But hard regimes were still insisted on. Prison was largely bad for your health, and there was no sense of reforming you, turning you for the better so that when you returned to society you were unlikely to reoffend. But increasingly the knowledge was developed that in fact if you could reform people, especially the young, you had a good chance of turning them around.

Possibly the greatest reform you could make is to prevent people going into prison in the first place

I was a part of that system. I was soaked in post-Second World War education and redemption programmes that issued out from Her Majesty’s Prison Service’s reform of the young. The argument ran that most juvenile delinquents came from violent and poor social circumstances not of their own making. They were children who got ‘dragged up wrong’, so to speak. So let’s get them sorted to become useful functioning members of society asap.

What a wonder this service was. Rehabilitation. You go in bad and you come out better. Not just about depriving you of your freedoms for a number of years. But to set you alight with education, work training and social improvement. Not to mention a strong regime of health.

While in reformatory I learned to read properly, to run miles and to box more efficiently. As well as skills around work that stood me in good stead, including some printing classes that I could use later in my working life.

Of course, this was interspersed with painful encounters with the old idea that you frighten people into submission, as was the case in my Oxford detention centre, where physical threats and suffering left their mark on you. A kind of ‘terrorising you into submission’ might be the best way of describing it.

When asked how I got into the House of Lords, I have often said it was “by lying, cheating and stealing” – ie, by getting banged up. I got probably the best of social educations on offer at the time. Which probably explained why the cost of sending me there was twice what it cost to send someone to Eton.

Do we have reform of that order now? Do we nurture prisoners, both young and old, to come out and get the most out of life by contributing to life and society?

Having visited quite a few prisons through the years since starting The Big Issue, I am still astonished at the paucity of reform when it has so readily been shown to pay great social dividends. Libraries, school rooms, classes, education in general: all should be a human right in our prisons and reformatories. That they are not, to me demonstrates the loss of educational opportunities. And the loss to society of having people who have turned against crime.

Reform is the name of the game, and that’s where my own personal experience leads me to rejoice at any attempt at bringing it back into current use.

Giving people inside the chances of improving on their pre-prison life and mentality is one of the most wonderful sights to see. Meeting people who have turned over a new leaf, who have gone back to helping others, is one of the finest demonstrations of the power of reform.

And if you want a great example of that, read Erwin James’s autobiography (Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope) that came out about five years ago. A great example of the power of giving someone the chance to turn their back on their former life. Erwin’s story will inspire you. I had the chance to review it when it first came out and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to see what you can do with rehabilitation.

Possibly the greatest reform you could make, though, is to prevent people going into prison in the first place. Assist people within the community, sort the problem out before things have gone seriously wrong. That is preventative thinking: knocking holes in poverty would make a great contribution to ending the tyranny of that poverty. Ending the predictability of failure that comes with starting from behind in a world riven with violence and need.

Although it upsets the ‘hang ’em and flog ’em’ brigade, most of the evidence shows that if you treat people with respect and humanity you get a better return on your time and social investment. That means if they are in prison let them have their visits, let them see their children. Let them communicate. Let them read books and educate themselves and improve their work-life abilities before they leave.

You don’t have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to look into our prison system now and see that it’s not delivering on producing enough chances to create sterling citizens, champing at the bit to get back into society as useful members.

I’m astonished that we produce as many sterling citizens as we do. 

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John Bird is the founder of The Big Issue.