It will take a brave council to embrace the Prime Minister’s plans for prison reform and actively seek to have one of his proposed six new build prisons within their own authority boundary.
Naturally, local residents would be sceptical about a giant ‘prisoner rehabilitation’ centre close to their own homes, yet there could be significant advantages – not least for the local economy, with job creation and new homes, bringing investment to tired conurbations. With prison governors having greater autonomy over how their facilities are run, and the services they buy in, they would be more accountable – not just to Westminster, but also to their local communities.
Prison is, of course, a punishment for doing something bad, but education should be at the heart of prisoner rehabilitation. It raises self-esteem and enables you to look beyond your immediate environment, providing a sense of responsibility for your own actions and behaviour towards others. These are qualities which need to be developed amongst offenders.
In his recent coruscating attack on top universities for their lack of equality (Oxford accepted just 27 black men and women out of an intake of more than 2,500 in 2014) the Prime Minister commented that, ‘if you’re a young black man, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than at a top university.’ He also pointed out that, ‘only one in ten of the poorest white boys go into higher education at all.’ Perhaps this means that we need more research into rising SEN numbers, and if there’s a relationship between special needs, crime and incarceration?
So, given the low educational achievement of so many of today’s prisoners, with about 35 per cent unable to read or write, which, in turn, encourages re-offending because they can’t get jobs, universities and colleges could take an active role in raising aspiration and achievement, perhaps sponsoring academies within the prison complex. Such a programme could lead to more prisoners qualifying in specific trades, or ultimately gaining a university place; if every big business committed to funding just one student, what a difference that could make. Timpsons has an exemplary record, already employing over 350 ex-offenders, nearly 10 per cent of its workforce.
Building the new prisons alongside military bases could also bring about a revolution, with prisoners learning discipline and developing their fitness by training alongside army recruits. Some may enjoy the lifestyle and camaraderie (replacing the gang culture which they previously relied on as ‘family’) choosing to join up, provided they meet the rigorous standards required. Alternatively, some prisoners could even be recruited and trained to work in the prison service, bringing a fresh perspective to the role.
As part of their training, prisoners benefiting from the new regime should be required to act as mentors, helping to identify those who are disengaged because they don’t want to admit that they lack the most basic literacy and consequently don’t understand it. As one ex-prisoner recently said, ‘there’s no point in putting up notices inviting people to learn to read, if they can’t read the notice!”
Within the prison complex, it would also be sensible to build a communal living space for prisoners approaching release, making them self-sufficient by using any earnings to pay for food and teaching them independence, how to budget and even to cook basic meals. It’s not about making life ‘easy’ for prisoners, but supporting them to become good citizens in the future, with an understanding of what is expected of them, enabling them to socialise and communicate.
Whilst there are, of course, wicked people who care nothing for others and commit the most appalling crimes, some people can be victims of their own traumatised upbringing and an ignorance of how they should behave. Drugs, alcohol, gangs intervene, giving them a purpose, however wrong; they can feel excluded and jealous of what others have achieved through their own hard work. Theft and violence become a way of life because there is no alternative. They know nothing else.
61 per cent of prison leavers re-offend within 2 years, dropping to 19 per cent for those with a job. So, it makes sense to rehabilitate, to develop their skills and employment prospects, whilst ensuring that they appreciate the impact of their actions on helpless victims.
I’m no apologist for crime and those who commit crime, but I don’t see the point in locking people up for 23 hours a day, making them angry and frustrated when there is an alternative. It simply means that when they eventually get out, all they want to do is make retribution by committing more crime. I believe in giving people a chance, but if they abuse it, then throw the book at them!
In the meantime, those brave, visionary council leaders should rise to the challenge and explore the opportunities for their own areas; having a brand new pioneering, reforming, prison could turn their authorities into an enterprise zone – in more ways than one.