‘Locked Up Potential’

March 23, 2009 at 9:05 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 4 Comments

It’s not the kind of thing which wins you many friends on your own side, but I’ve tried to make a point of highlighting policy areas where the Conservative Party is starting to think more progressively than the current government. The subject of this reluctant love-bombing has mostly been Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, which has produced some excellent work over the past year, particularly on Early Intervention and the need to bring some blessed humanity into the asylum system. But of all their work so far, this new report into the prison system might just be the best thing the CSJ has published.

The first – and most important – thing this report contributes is its demolition of the well-worn myth that ‘prison works’. Under Labour, our imprisonment rate has become the second highest in Europe and 62% of prisoners go on reoffend, which costs the taxpayer over £12 billion. The length of an average sentence is a completely unproductive 3 months, prisons are increasingly being used as a dumping ground for the mentally ill, and there are unacceptable levels of drug use, self-harm and suicides. At present, the contribution the prison system makes to our social well-being is practically non-existent.

So what do the report’s authors claim needs to be done? Well, the first step is to admit that, yes, we do need to build more prisons, but they also have to be much smaller and rooted in communities. The proposed (and overwhelmingly hated) ‘titan prisons’ should be scrapped and replaced with community prisons & a network of supervised ‘halfway houses’ for those who don’t pose a threat to the public, and for whom withdrawing from society altogether would be entirely detrimental. They also claim that the National Offender Management Service is unfit for purpose, and should be replaced by local prison trusts, run in much the same way as local NHS trusts.

For the first time, rehabilitation would be incentivised, and prison & rehabilitation officers – as well as the organisations they work for – would receive bonuses for the number of inmates they manage to get back on the straight ‘n narrow. On top of that, the rehab programmes themselves would be radically overhauled, and tailored towards an inmate’s specific circumstances; people end up in prison for a wide variety of reasons, and if you’re able to identify & resolve the problems which led them there, you stand a much better chance of reducing the risk they pose once released.

Other proposals include mentoring schemes for young prisoners on short sentences; improving resettlement support so that inmates aren’t as likely to end up on the streets once released; overhauling prisoner education so that those who enter jails without skills or qualifications at least re-enter society with something they can sell on the jobs market. Finally, the report points to the importance of extending restorative justice and making reparations to the victims of crime a much greater part of an offender’s rehabilitation. This is all very, very good stuff.

There’s a big difference, of course, between a report chaired by a former Tory minister for a think tank headed by a former Tory leader, and the current thinking on the Conservative Party’s front bench; whilst Cameron has made a few pleasing noises about scrapping Titans and incentivising rehabilitation, it remains to be seen whether the Tories can embrace this reformist agenda, or whether they’ll fall back on the tired old methods of the past which Labour has proved to be a failure. But if the proposals contained in this report can at least steer the conversation in a more progressive direction by offering real & achievable ideas for change, then that’s not something to be taken lightly.

As it happens, I quite like the slogan ‘prison works’; it’s a fine ideal that we should aspire to and work towards. But it’s also a slogan which has no bearing on the present situation, and unless we can begin to make prison work, we’ll only succeed in wasting yet more money and lives and opportunities doing that which has failed time and again. That two lifelong Tories can reach that conclusion before a Labour government says an awful lot.

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  1. […] has previously made positive noises about creating some kind of league table system, and the Aitken report includes incentivisation as one of its key […]

  2. […] Of particular interest should be the idea of devolving the welfare state to a local level. Having been unimpressed by proposals for reforming the benefits system, the possibility of localisation is one I’ve also considered in the past. It’s clear that the welfare state needs to find new ways of working, develop better relationships with welfare claimants and promote more co-operation with local business, the third sector and other social services. The only conceivable way I can think of doing that is by devolving it to a local level and bringing it much closer to those people it wishes to reach. Indeed, we should take this idea further and think about the possibility for devolving prison & rehabilitation efforts as discussed in the Aitken report. […]

  3. […] with a Purpose’ paper, influenced heavily by outside experts and the fine work done by the Centre for Social Justice, is a thoughtful, well-informed engagement with the problem which rightly concludes that the […]

  4. […] with a Purpose’ paper, influenced heavily by outside experts and the fine work done by the Centre for Social Justice, is a thoughtful, well-informed engagement with the problem which rightly concludes that the […]


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