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Dominic Raab closed a mini-series about prisons on ConservativeHome a week ago today.  A question it raised right from the start was: does prison work?

As so often, the answer is: it depends.  Does locking up criminals improve public safety?  Yes, in the sense that the only crimes they can commit after being sentenced to prison take place behind bars.

Does prison deter?  Peter Cuthbertson had a striking statistic in his study for Civitas four years ago: a person sent to prison is significantly more likely to have at least 46 previous convictions or cautions (10 per cent) than to have none.  If the test is deterring people who have already committed crimes, prison isn’t working.

Does prison rehabilitate?  The answer follows from the one about deterrence.  “Just short of 50 per cent of current prisoners will be convicted again within 12 months of release,” Peter Stanford of the Longford Trust wrote as he opened our series.  Again, the answer is no.  Why?

The next piece on this site I want to quote was published five years ago. “Just under a quarter were taken into care as a child, wrote Edward Boyd of the Centre for Social Justice.  “Two in five prisoners committed offences to get money to buy drugs; more than two-thirds were unemployed prior to prison; the majority have the literacy age expected of an eleven-year old; he majority have debts.”

The thrust of all those figures is unlikely to have changed, for all the effects of Covid in prisons and among criminals.  What is to be done?  Perhaps I’m guilty of a failure of imagination, but I want to narrow down the answers, and exclude those that are less likely to be politically possible.

These include: giving prisoners shorter prisons sentences, legalising or decriminalising illegal drugs, and letting out more prisoners earlier (up to a point).  It may be worth pausing for a moment to explain why Ministers of all parties have resisted these options and are likely to continue to do so.

First, shorter sentences.  England, Wales and Scotland (though not Northern Ireland) incarcerate more people than any other country in western Europe, unless you count the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as some definitions do.  As our columnist David Gauke pointed out when Justice Secretary, “prison sentences, in general, have been getting longer”.

As he said, part of the explanation is “our society and government rightly recognising and responding to the rise in certain types of crime”.  All the same, Cuthbertson’s figures didn’t support the view that a significant percentage of first-timers are being sent to prison: “70 per cent of custodial sentences are imposed on those with at least seven previous convictions”.

Next, letting more people out of prison early.  Michael Gove experimented with more early releases on temporary licence, and Robert Buckland took similar measures in response to Covid.  But Ministers have limited room for manoeuvre: remember the rumpus over Labour’s End of Custody Scheme.  “Prisoners set free early have allegedly carried out 1,512 offences, the Daily Mail reported in 2010.

If shorter sentences are out, at least for violent crimes, and there are limits to early release, an option that remains is declassifying one of the drivers of prison sentences, and legalising or decriminalising illegal drugs.  To cut a long story very short, I expect governments and voters to honour the unwritten bargain that has been covertly struck: prohibition will continue on paper, though increasingly not in practice.

So however successfully the police, and civil society more widely, are able to deter crime, we come inevitably to the striking conclusion drawn by Raab on our site: “successful rehabilitation is the only sustainable way to cut crime”.  I can’t remember a senior politician putting it quite so baldly before.  But because the Justice Secretary is thought of as a man of the right, no-one much seems to have noticed.

Raab’s policy prospectus is sensible enough: getting offenders to beat addiction, giving offenders the skills they need to go straight, reducing and, perhaps with a nod to a bit more early release. “expanding the opportunities to get inmates and offenders on licence into work”.

What does he need to deliver it?  My answer is simple, but not easy.  And it’s the same as any other Minister who wants to drive through reform should get.  He requires the full backing of the Prime Minister, which in this case he is unlikely to obtain – and, no, not because Boris Johnson doesn’t or can’t focus on anything much for very long (a claim that’s exaggerated, but that again is another story).

As Gove once put it, Downing Street operates like the eye of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings films: it can’t swivel to see everything at once.  It must prioritise – and its priorities include, more often than not, not furthering its own agenda but responding to someone else’s.  The Owen Paterson saga and everything that has followed since is a timely example.

Which brings us to the main point.  Prisoners are not a priority: not for this Government; not for any government.  And they’re not one for Ministers because they’re not one for voters.  Most voters will have educated in schools, not at home.  As they grow old, they are increasingly likely to use the NHS or social services.  They are less likely to deal one-on-one with a police officer.

But even so, they are surely more likely to do so than to visit a prison.  When push comes to shove, prisoners are out of sight and out of mind for a great swathe of the public.  We don’t lock the door and throw away the key.  We lock it and forget that we’ve done so.  Meanwhile, charities like Tempus Novo, which also contributed to our series, try to help sort out the mess.

A Number Ten that gave prisoners more priority would use its bully pulpit to help cut reoffending.  That wouldn’t just mean more spending (though some there would need to be).  For example, a Downing Street more concentrated on prisons would get departments out of their siloes to help released prisoners find work and keep work.

That would mean banging heads together in the new Levelling Up department, to identify more housing; in Work & Pensions, which has charge of work programmes; in Levelling Up again, since local councils are involved, or should be; in Education, because of the sheer number of prisoners unable to read or write.

Elsewhere, new spending needs to marry the prison estate and prison education: one ex-Minister insists that “we need to replace Victorian prisons that cost a fortune to maintain with a smaller number of prisons – some of which could be privately built, run and operated.  Furthermore, the prison population is ageing: “I see rails by toilets and mobility scooters,” another former Minister said.

Along with a multi-year plan for capital spending would come the implementation of the Coates Review of prison education.  Meanwhile, the Prime Minister would make a big policy set-piece speech, host the Prison Officer of the Year awards in Downing Street, visit prisons more regularly.

You may say that prisons policy is utimately a matter of how much we care about the waste of human capital – of lives.  That’s the truth but not the whole truth.

Because prison policy is also a matter of self-interest, or societal interest if you like. The total estimated economic and social cost of reoffending is about £18 billion.  Mull the more productive uses which that money could be put to.