This year sees the fortieth anniversary of Kenneth Clarke's first entry into government. But he is still ready for new experiences. Last week, there was one. Almost certainly for the first time in his career, Ken said something that everyone will agree with. He declared that prisoners ought to be made to work. About time, and not only that; such a measure would be very much in the prisoner's interest.

There are two broad categories of criminals in Britain's gaols. The smaller number, probably only around one-tenth of the total, consists of dangerous men who have committed serious crimes. They are the sort of prisoners whose escape might make it to the Six o'Clock News; "likely to be armed, do not approach". With them, it is simple to define the Prison Service's principal objective: to ensure that they end the day as they began it – in custody. But the vast majority of prisoners are not life-threateningly dangerous. They are inadequates. They usually had a lousy upbringing and an education to match. Many of them are illiterate; a lot of them have drug problems. We should not minimise their offences. Anyone who has had a house trashed by burglars will feel rage and hatred: justifiably so. Even so, these characters are not necessarily incorrigible.

Let us start with a basic premise. For years, with the partial exception of Michael Howard's time as Home Secretary, those in charge of penal policy have approached their task with a mixture of complacency and despair. The assumption has been that crime is like Topsy. It has just grown, and nothing can be done about it. That is nonsense. As I pointed out during a recent article on welfare and social workers, a quarter of a million young males (fourteen to twenty-five) are thought to be responsible for half of all crime. Gross that figure up to include relatives and the total could not be more than one and a half million. If the rest of us cannot coerce most of that criminal underclass, we deserve everything that they inflict upon us.

There are two analogies with welfare reform. The first is the need for early intervention. The second is tough measures to ensure that aspirant criminals are not socialised into crime, in the way that so many welfare recipients are turned in to dole-junkies.

The young criminal usually manifests his ambitions early in life. Long before the age of criminal responsibility, currently ten, he will have embarked on his cursus malorum. So: we should begin by reducing the age of criminal responsibility, to eight. The usual penalty for a first offence should be a caution. Administered by an old-fashioned copper, that is normally a chastening experience. If more is necessary, the child should be put on report, with a form to be signed every day by his teachers. Needless to say, truancy should  never be tolerated. If we cannot ensure that small children attend schools, we may as well give up. A couple of times a week, the report card will have to be taken to the police station, by the brat accompanied by his mum, who might well relieve her dissatisfaction by administering the odd clout. Suddenly, the terror of the class-room becomes a toad under the harrow.

Bad reports would be punished by enforced attendance at weekend correction sessions. Arrangements could be made for the reporting regime to continue during the school holidays, supervised by the new breed of social workers whom I wish to summon to the welfare front-line. As a result of all this, a necessary ingredient would be restored to the relationship between the young malefactor and authority: fear. Whatever boastful elder brothers will have said, based on experiences which should be rapidly becoming out of date, the law is not to be mocked. You fall into its clutches at your peril. The law's young victim could only earn his release from the reporting regime by a reasonable period of good behaviour.

At the same time, everything possible should be done to ensure that his school functions properly, that there are opportunities for play and sport and that conditions at home are improving because the social workers are showing mum how to be a decent mother. So carrot as well as stick, but no shortage of stick. The apprentice criminal should be absorbing a lesson: that it is foolish to kick against the pricks; that if provoked, the legal system will get nasty and stay nasty.

Let us assume that phase one has not worked. From about twelve onwards, if dealing with burglary, street crime et al, is time to move beyond the report and to send the youngster to the moor. Not Dartmoor – a little too early for that – but a boot camp somewhere on a cold, wet, forbidding moor. The regimen would be a simple one: pure one hundred degree proof punishment. Up at four in the morning. A run. A cold shower. Cutting the grass with nail scissors. Some drill. Another run. Painting the coal white with a nail brush. More drill. Painting the coal black again – et al. This would last for five days, though defiance would extend the sentence.

Then, at the gates, the cowed and shaken youngster would be greeted by a old-fashioned probation officer, who would take him to a cafe – give him a little bit of a treat – while getting to know him. The probationer officer would try to sort out the youngster's life. How is his education? If he cannot read and write, that must be sorted out, and the school which has neglected him should have to answer some hostile questions. Again, there could be incentives such as football boots or trips. But there would also be the constant threat of a refresher course on the moor. The probation bit of the sentence would be scheduled to last for three years. But it would automatically be extended if there were refreshers. Equally, if the boy were doing everything right, he could appear in front of a magistrate, swear to be of good conduct and have his sentence annulled, plus handshakes all round and a cash reward.

Then there is stage three. Nothing has worked, including a tough-regime community sentence. It is now time for custody. To deal with burglars, or those who commit similar crimes and are going to gaol for the first time, a new sentence should be introduced: six to eighteen months, to be followed by two years' rigorous probation. It is generally agreed that the most frightening period for the new prisoner is the initial forty-eight hours. He then begins to adapt: to feel at home. That is what we must prevent. Prisoners must never be allowed to feel at home. So the introduction to prison life should emphasise harshness. Every official face should be as grim as possible. After the customary indignities such as strip-searching, the prisoner should find himself in a solitary (suicide proof) cell. The only comfort would be a Bible or equivalent. There would also be a great pile of mailbags. The prisoner would have to complete them before moving on to the next phase. Eating his meals in the cell, his only contact with other inmates would be during ablutions and exercise. He would see warders, who would shout at him for not getting on faster with sewing the mailbags, and the Chaplain. That would be all.

Mailbags phase over, the inmate would be given a time-table to keep him busy from 8am to 7pm. It would consist of education, sport, counselling and work. At present, prisoners often shuffle around their gaols looking like the epitome of listlessness. Under my regime, they would be rushing like schoolboys in danger of being late for class. Lateness would earn black marks, and only a few of those would be necessary to forfeit privileges. Any form of entertainment would be regarded as a privilege, never to be taken for granted. Continued idleness would mean more weeks on mailbags. There should be zero-tolerance for drugs.

The prisoner would also have a tutor/probation officer, who would stay with him after release. His job (could of course be a her; in this column, to avoid a promiscuous waste of words, man covers woman) would be to sort out the prisoner's life. When he is released, what happens: a job, training? Where does he live?

All this assumes that the prisoner is cooperative. He had better be. The six to eighteen month tariff would mean what it says. A prisoner who does not put his back into work and education would serve the full eighteen months and would have nightmares about mailbags for the rest of his life. There could indeed be supplementary sentences, for being a recalcitrant prisoner.
Education would be the first priority. Illiterate prisoners would be told that they would serve the entire term unless a) they had become literate b) they and their probation officer
had made arrangements for continuing education outside prison. If they defaulted on those arrangements, back inside.

But there would still be carrots. Any prisoner who was behaving well and had a semi-decent home to go to could be let out on Sunday. After all, the contrast between home and the Nick should surely encourage all but the hopeless cases to work their way out of prison as fast as possible and then never return. Equally, any prisoner who could find a bona fide job on the outside should be allowed to take it. At present, imprisonment is often an expensive way of making inadequates more so. Under the new regime, those who persisted in inadequacy would have a horrible time. Those who showed willing would be offered encouragement and hope.

There would be a number of problems. First, under the new regime, it would probably be easier for prisoners to escape. But that price would be worth paying, if the improvements could be achieved. Moreover, it could be drummed into prisoners on first arrival that escaping is simply not worth it. There would be a three year sentence for the escape itself, plus supplements for any crimes committed while on the lam, and no nonsense about concurrent. All those terms would be consecutive. An escaped prisoner would not have to do very much to attract a ten-year sentence.

Second, as the Nineteenth Century penologist Sir Edmund du Cane observed, the worst men often make the best prisoners. Confronted by my regime, the clever semi-psychopath might just play along and aim to get out in six months. Well and good, but on his release, a point would be emphasised and re-emphasised. In effect, the rest of his sentence would not be cancelled. It would be suspended, for fifteen years. Re-offend during that time and the old sentence has to be served to the day, before the man begins on the new one, which, naturally, has a higher tariff.
The third is cost. This is not a good moment to spend more money on prisons; it never is. But the present arrangements are hideously expensive – nearly £40,000 per annum per prisoner – and the recidivism rates are appalling. Crime is one of the major threats to the quality of life in this country. A radical reform of the penal system with the aim of harassing potential criminals throughout their early career would be greatly in the public interest. It would also be in the criminals' best interests.

The fourth is control. A Nick where few demands are made on the inmates, who have plenty of telly and a fair few drugs, is easier to run than the challenging new prisons would be. There could be the odd outbreak of violence. To that, there are only two responses. The first is defiance, and the promise that any mutinous behaviour would be crushed, after which those responsible would be harshly punished. The second is contempt. Afraid of disorderly prisoners? Is Britain inhabited by men, or mice?

Finally, we come to the ECHR. Most of the reforms proposed here would probably be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. That also deserves two responses. The first is "good". The second, see men and mice, above.

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