Opinion & Features

Why prisons don't get reformed

Photo: mazur/catholic.org.uk

Shorter sentencing doesn't get to the heart of the matter. Work, education, and a drug-free environment are the key to redemption

How easy it is to score a century from the pavilion. I wish I had a penny for every time I heard that adage at Westminster. I heard it again in my imagination as I thought of the Home Office trying to absorb the Church’s latest pronouncements on penal reform, set out in A Journey of Hope, a report commissioned by Bishop Richard Moth, the lead bishop for prisons in England and Wales. Some of its content is sound common sense but there is also a lot of starry-eyed idealism, which should have been balanced by some very practical considerations but which was not.

The statement on the front cover – “Establishing a criminal justice system that works and offers a genuinely rehabilitative environment does not constitute a soft approach to crime” – could have been taken from my own speech to the Conservative Party conference in 1999, when I pointed out that rehabilitation in our prisons is not some sort of soft, wet, liberal optional extra but a crucial tool of public protection. As I said at the time, if the man who leaves the prison gates is as bad as he was when he went in through them, then the result is to create more victims and to present the taxpayer with a billfor yet another sentence. Nobody gains: not the prisoner, not his family, not the taxpayer and not his next victims.

I therefore opened the document with a hope of my own, which was, alas, quickly dashed. The bishops begin with a clear and accurate statement of the dire state of our prisons but then decide not that there should be more prisons to ease the overcrowding or more prison officers to cope or a modernisation programme, but instead come up with the old chestnut that community sentencing is more effective and therefore the answer to combating crime is to send fewer people to prison.

It is a fact of penal life that people coming into prison have already been through the route of probation/community service/supervision orders etc, none of which have deterred the convict from further crime. Alternatively they may not have been through such a course because the crime was either too serious or too often repeated. In other words, prison picks up the people who are either more persistent or more serious offenders, so naturally the recidivism rate is higher. There is nothing surprising in that.

Thus, instead of looking at the crucial role of work, training, education and drugs prevention in prisons and how they can and must be improved, the bishops take the lazy line of saying we should simply send fewer people there and of assuming that “sentence inflation” must of necessity be a bad trend. Yet if prisons worked it would be a good trend. Indeed, in the early to mid 1990s hundreds of hours more of purposeful activity, the end of slopping out, the elimination of overcrowding in cells and a reduction in the number of assaults took place in tandem with a rising prison population, not a falling one.

The report observes that many women in prison have been the victims of worse crimes than they perpetrated. That is true and it applies to some of the men as well. But that cannot justify whatever they were sent down for, particularly as the courts try very hard not to send women to jail for trivial first offences.

The Church says that its findings are based on the values of hope, forgiveness and reconciliation. Yes, your lordships, but what about repentance and redemption and the protection of the innocent? Of course it is right to say that it is forgiveness rather than retribution which brings healing, but that is largely healing for the victim. What will heal the prisoner and set him on a new course that does not produce other victims?

The report rightly points out that too many mentally ill convicts should be treated elsewhere in the system but does not say how. The answer may well be an expansion of secure mental hospitals but I can’t think that would fill the authors of this report with much joy.

Obviously A Journey of Hope is not oversupplied with detail, so what we have here is an evidence-free zone in which old arguments are trotted out but which, above all, disappoints in its promise of suggesting a “genuinely rehabilitative environment”. So let me summarise what one of those actually looks like: a daily routine of work and education, being able to move about without fear, to live in a drug-free environment, having prospects on release.

That is what I asked for in 1999. Yet in 20 years the state has gone backwards instead of forwards and now the Church throws its hands up in holy horror and proclaims that the answer to getting prisons right is not to use them. No, it is to reform them with a sense of purpose and will. Sadly those characteristics are in short supply.

Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and former prisons minister.

A Journey of Hope can be downloaded here.