Before the 2005 election, I had the privilege of serving in the Conservative Party’s policy unit. It was a particular honour to serve alongside distinguished colleagues such as Karen Bradley, Jesse Norman and, er, Douglas Carswell (whatever became of him, I wonder).

Another colleague from those days was Danny Kruger – who, like Carswell, later decided he’d had his fill of conventional politics. However, unlike his old colleague, Kruger didn’t go off to join a different party, but to lead a crime-prevention charity called Only Connect, which works with “young people at risk, prisoners and ex-offenders.”

Writing for the Telegraph, his subject is the state of rehabilitation in our prisons – and the picture he paints is a dismal one. While it’s the occasional prison riot that makes the headlines, the real problem would appear to lie at the other end of the eventfulness spectrum:

“Prisons are sleepy places at the best of times, with a majority of inmates lying on their backs at any one moment. But right now they are catatonic. Staff shortages have resulted in extreme levels of ‘bang-up’ (some prisoners spend 23 hours a day locked in their cells) and a dwindling of the already minimal activities that help them prepare for release.”

In various works of science fiction, the prison system of the future involves putting prisoners in a state of suspended animation, then filing them away to be revived at a later date. Back in the present, we seem to have achieved a low tech version of this scenario – only the prisoners are conscious.

Yes, prisons are meant to be places of punishment – and if you count enforced, soul-destroying idleness as a punishment – then they are fulfilling this function, albeit at considerable expense.

If, however, you also think that prisons should be places of rehabilitation, then something has gone seriously wrong:

“My charity delivers some education services in London prisons. But to do our work we need prison officers – public-sector employees who don’t always see the point of prisoners getting an education – to unlock and escort the inmates to the classroom. If we’re lucky we get half a classful – maybe six prisoners – and if we’re not, we get none. This is what budget cuts and poor morale does to a system that never worked well in the first place.”

Kruger argues for what he calls the “denationalisation of rehabilitation, of work that began (in the Victorian age) in the independent sector and properly belongs there.”

Charities have a vital role to play in resolving the central paradox of the prison system – which is that while prison is designed to protect the public by removing prisoners from society, it also needs to socialise inmates in preparation for their eventual release.

It is through social institutions, i.e. families and communities, that socialisation takes place. We therefore need charities to metaphorically bridge the gap between prisons and the outside world – because if, for the obvious reasons, one can’t bring prisoners into the community then we need organisations capable of bringing community to prisoners.

Anyone who thinks this sounds a bit liberal needs to ask themselves two questions: Firstly, if criminals are morally responsible for their actions (and therefore deserving of punishment), should we continue to treat them as human beings with moral agency  or as mindless animals for whom containment is the best we can hope for? Secondly, might the idea that character is formed (and reformed) through the inculcation of shared values actually be more conservative than the alternative – which is that people are either innately good or irretrievably bad?

A prison does nothing to reconnect prisoners to society can only work as a holding pen. But unless we hold prisoners for ever, which in most cases is neither humane nor practical, then sooner or later they must be released – and what happens then?

“I once heard, from an officer at HMP Wormwood Scrubs, of a foreign national prisoner released one Christmas. He wandered out of the famous gates… and turned down Du Cane Road. A few minutes later he was back. ‘Excuse me,’ he asked the officers at the gate, ‘can you direct me to the community?’ Blank faces. ‘I was told I was being released into the community. Where is it?’”


8 comments for: Heresy of the week: Prison reform is a conservative issue – or at least it should be

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