Does prison work?

In her response below, Olive Kennedy explores a range of issues relating to the purpose of prisons, rates of recidivism, the effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes, prison conditions and overcrowding.

“Prison doesn’t work.” Discuss.

Prison is seen to act as a deterrent, discouraging a convicted individual from committing any further crime upon release. In addition to this, some regard the function of a prison as rehabilitative; helping an offender the change to reform his or her life through education or training. It also fulfils a societal need, removing offenders from society to protect the general public. However, there are questions about its overall effectiveness and whether prisons in the UK actually fulfil these roles. Due to high rates of reoffending, poor conditions in prisons and the lack of rehabilitation given to prisoners, it incredibly difficult for offenders to re-integrate into society once they have served their sentence and consequently rates of recidivism remain high in the UK.

It is clear that prisons do serve a fundamental purpose to provide safety for the public by removing people who commit crimes from society and they arguably “send a strong message about what our society is willing to accept, and what it is not willing to accept”, as Chris Grayling the former Justice Secretary stated. Governments are elected in the confidence that they will provide national security and so tough stances on law and order by parties have been popular for many years, with the Conservatives being elected in 1979 for their “respect for the rule of law” and their commitment to the protection of the citizen. As well this, Tony Blair was elected in 1997 for his commitment to be “tough on crime, and on the causes of crime.” It is clear that the general acceptance of the public of tough stances on crime by governments shows, that prison works as a means of keeping society safe from those who commit crimes.

However, it is questionable as to whether prisons do keep society safe when reoffending rates are so high and as crime within prison increases. A report published by Judge Michael Reilly, the Inspector of Prisons in November 2015 saw a spread of gang activity within prisons as well as finding that some prison officers “preferred to turn a blind eye to gang activities” rather than trying to manage disorder. In addition to this, there has been 62 drug finds in the previous 6 months from January 2016 at Rochester jail in Kent, including some very large parcels that had been thrown over the wall. Prison inspectors saw inmates who were clearly under the influence of psychoactive substances when they arrived at the jail in September 2015. The availability of legal highs such as ‘Spice’ was also leading to debt and bullying among inmates. Between March and August last year violence had escalated with 18 assaults against staff, 36 against prisoners and 16 fights, some had resulted in serious injuries and in one case, murder. Although prisons are needed in order to keep society safe, it could be argued that this only works in the short term with effective management, and in the long term they act as crime factories, opening offenders up to perhaps even more serious crimes than which they were sentenced for, which could ultimately result in them reoffending.

There are clear problems with prisons due to the issue that it has a poor record for reducing reoffending. 46% of adults are reconvicted within one year of release. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months, this figure increases to 58%. Although prisons may act as a societal need, they are not helping to deter people from reoffending. Community sentences act as an alternative to prison and are more effective by nearly 7% at reducing one year proven reoffending rates than custodial sentences of less than 12 months. For those serving sentences of less than 23 months this increases to 58%. Arguably prison fails to keep people safer as more than 1 in 4 people reoffend within a year(Ministry of Justice figures).

However this seems too general and it is important to look at the performance of prisons on a more local level. Tempus Novo, a charity based in Leeds was born out of the need to challenge the cycle of crime that has a great effect on society. They co-ordinate a support strategy often starting several weeks before a person is released from prison and continues for up to 12 months post release focusing on creating employment opportunities for them and re-integrating them back into society by approaching local businesses about hiring inmates on release. The work this organisation has done in HMP Leeds has helped to reduce reoffending rates down to 14%. Steve Freer, one of the founders, believes that working with prisoners while they are still in jail is key to building trust. “We have been in the service for over 50 years between us and we were sick of seeing the same faces in and out and the sons of the same guys coming in too.” This therefore shows that although prison seems to fail in deterring people to continue to commit crime, individual work by third-sector organisations can deliver some success by providing employment opportunities therefore relieving the difficulty of re-integration into society and therefore regionally can help prisons fulfil their complete need to society.

It is important to look at the conditions in prisons in the UK when trying to assess whether prison works as the environment in which prisons are kept in could either help or inhibit their ability to reintegrate offenders when they are released. More than 7,000 jobs and £900m have been cut from the prison budget since 2010 and from 2014, prison budgets were to be cut by £149million a year. Whilst significant cuts are being made, the cost of prison has doubled from £1.5billion to nearly £3billion in the last 20 years, with the average cost of a prison place being between £35,000 and £40,000. However there seems to be an “extraordinarily high prison population” according to Ken Clarke with around 84,920 people in prison and young offender institutions in England and Wales in December 2015. This figure has increased from around 41,800 in 1993. Budget cuts and an increase in the prison population by more than double in 23 years has resulted in around 77 of the 119 prisons in England and Wales to be overcrowded. Leeds (HMP) prison has a current population of 1,126 but can only hold 669 prisoners.

Not only this, it has lead to a serious strain on resources. In 2000, there was one prison officer for every 2.9 prisoners; by the end of March 2014 this ratio had increased to one for every 5.3. As resources are stretched, prisoners have been doing less education, training and work because there are not enough officers to take them to workshops or libraries. Prison Governors Association president Eoin McLennan Murray said the fundamental problem was “this shortage of staff where we haven’t been able to recruit in the numbers that we need in order to run safe, decent regimes”

Nick Hardwick the chief inspector of prisons was appalled after his inspection in September 2015 and stated that “People concentrate on the big issues like rehabilitation, but if you can’t change your underwear for a week, you can’t get cleaning materials and you are sharing a cell that is 12ft by 12ft with an unscreened toilet, that’s disgusting, the place can stink.” He recalled officers coming up to him saying ‘go look at these cells because I wouldn’t keep a dog in them.’ “They had no light, everything was broken and prisoners were there for 23 hours a day.” 49% of women and 23% of male prisoners in a Ministry of Justice study were assessed as suffering from anxiety and depression and there has been 6 prison suicides since January 2016. According to a report from HM Inspectorate for Prisons, reports of self-harm at Glen Parva young offenders institution have jumped from 274 to 316 in a year. Prisoners are being bullied, with other inmates demanding that they pay an official “rent” for their cells; those victimized are forced to hand over money and food. The number of assaults against other prisoners and staff has jumped by a quarter in a year.

The poor conditions are also having effects on staff. A survey of members by the Prison Governors Association found that 61% had suffered stress-related ill health and 42% would consider changing jobs if conditions did not improve.

It is clear there are things fundamentally wrong with prison system regarding conditions that both criminals and prison officers experience when inside prisons which limit offenders ability to be rehabilitated and deterred from committing any further crime. Nick Hardwick said extra resources were needed or the prison population had to be reduced to improve conditions in prisons however at the time, Mr Grayling told the BBC he disagreed. He said there were 1,000 spare prison places and promised 2,000 new places by April. Nick Hardwick attacked the state of the system in 2014, claiming “political and policy failure” was behind dangerous overcrowding in publicly run jails and has announced he would step down as chief inspector of Prisons next year. Perhaps this was the reason why Grayling was shuffled out in 2015 by Cameron and replaced by Gove.However it is important to remember that this is not the case for all prisons in the UK. Ashfield prison located in Bristol holds category C adult male serving sentences for sexual offences and in the annual performance ratings for 2014/15, it achieved level 4, exceptional performance. All prisoners have the opportunity to engage in a wide range of both educational activities such as book keeping, and vocational training opportunities including horticulture and carpentry in this prison. All of which provides them with the skills, knowledge and qualifications to assist them into further education or employment upon release. In particular, the prison has developed links with Avon & Somerset Fire and Rescue, Wessex Water and several catering employers to ease prisoners into employment. In addition, there is a physical education department, which works alongside healthcare to encourage prisoners to live healthy lifestyles and provide education and information on diet, fitness and general well being. Cells are well quipped and have been deemed ‘exceptionally high by prison standards’ in its annual performance report. HMP Ashfield has a fully integrated well being service including mental health, substance misuse and learning disability and 24 hour nursing cover to help improve the lives of prisoners and ease the difficulty of re-integrating upon release. The facilities available here provide a productive environment for prisoners to reform their lives, which show that if prison is well structured and organized, it can work.

Rehabilitation is key in prisons to ensure that when criminals are released they are able to re-enter society with ease as a reformed individual. A national audit office report in 2010 said that a failure to tackle the criminality of 60,000 prisoners who serve sentences shorter than 12 months cost the country an estimated £7 billion to £10 billion annually in reoffending. They also experience high levels of homelessness and drug and alcohol problems once they are released into society. The ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’ launched by Chris Grayling, the former Justice Secretary in the Coalition, was triggered by these problems. He proposed that short custodial sentences would include a period of mandatory rehab for prisoners, and reformed convicts would play a role in mentoring inmates during the weeks leading up to their release and post release. As well as this there would be mandatory rehabilitative programmes and private contractors would provide probation services under contracts that would be paid “by results”. However there were many criticisms of this with penal reformers and probation officers arguing that there would not be enough mentors to help ex-offenders. Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said “payment by results in criminal justice was untested and claimed the Tory-led Government were taking a reckless gamble with public safety.” As well as this, Grayling was criticized for his commitment and “emphasis on austerity and cost reduction rather than decency and rehabilitation” said the authors of a report by the British Academy, suggesting that although measures were to be put in place, they lacked substance in improving rehabilitation in prisons. In a number of prisons, prisoners are now locked up for 50% more time than they used to be and that makes it harder for them to be rehabilitated.

However, in 2015, Gove replaced Grayling with his own plans for rehabilitation announced in December 2015, which could result in rehabilitation becoming more prevalent in prisons and therefore helping people to re-enter society after serving a custodial sentence. He has proposed to create reform jails that have greater autonomy of budgets, education and training as well as being paid by results, with their success judged on reoffending rates and educational outcomes rather than the effectiveness of security. As well as this, he wants to see more charities and businesses getting involved in prisons “bringing everyone together to be more coordinated so no prisoner walks out of the gates without a plan” says Danny Kruger, the Prime Minister’s former speech writer who founded the prison charity Only Connect. He also proposes that technology needs to play a central role in modernizing prisons. Martin Narey, the former director-general of the Prison service who is now on the Ministry of Justice board, suggests that technology should be used to make “prisoners time more constructive, allowing them to meet a tutor once a week, working on their numeracy and literacy skills as well as keeping relationships with family through Skype.”

It is clear that there are major problems in prison across the UK. Poor conditions, lack of staff and resources to carry out purposeful activity and high reoffending rates leads to question whether prison does actually work. However it is important to note that not all prisons have these major problems. Effective management and involvement with the third sector can make prison work, providing a productive environment for offenders to reform their lives, whilst keeping the rest of society safe, but it is important to note that cuts to the prison budget will make this harder to achieve. However, it will be interesting to see how Gove’s proposals will influence the prison system in the UK, with a hopeful focus on rehabilitation and more charity involvement, prisons in the UK could improve dramatically and help to keep prison population figures low by deterring people from committing crime therefore making prison work.


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