Do prisons really work?

This is a quieter week in Council affairs following yesterday’s Remembrance services.  It was really encouraging to see so many councillors turning up to show their respects with 15 of us at the Camberley service and parade alone. Many others would have been at the alternative events around the borough.

An e-mail this morning from a Surrey Heath resident pointed out that today is Prisons Week – somewhat ironic as it coincides with the Police and Crime Commissioner elections and not something that appears to be well advertised.

Now there are currently around 85 000 men, women and young people in our UK prisons which is similar to the population in the whole of Surrey Heath. Of course, many people including Police candidates take the view that this is far too low with more baddies needing to be locked up for the good of society.

But are they all baddies or is it just easier to dismiss people in this way?  A check of the figures show that amongst the hardened villians were 10% who will be in prison awaiting trial so not actually convicted of any offence at all.  Another 5% are convicted but awaiting a sentence. We also have 1% who are in prison despite being deemed too young to vote (i.e. 15 to 17s) and a further 8% who are 18 to 20.  A further 13% are actually foreign nationals which is probably less than most right wing commentators believe (Jamaica, Poland and Ireland lead the way here not Islamic fundamentalists) and so arguably should be returned to their own country’s prison rather than remaining in a UK prison and then deported after their prison sentence is complete. An unknown percentage on top of this have mental health or other medical issues.

Now one of the interesting aspects is the low percentage of women in prison and in fact, only 1 out of 20 prisoners are female.

I mention this because about 18 months ago, I spent an afternoon in one of our local prisons namely Send which is a female prison.  I was invited there along with about 10 other Council and church people from across Surrey. This was for the final session for a special reparation course that had been undertaken by some of the women. Around 20 of them had taken part and the idea was that church volunteers had gone in and got them to think about the impact of their actions in terms of their victims, their families, the wider community and themselves. The course was led by a Surrey Heath resident and Church member.

We were there as community representatives so that they realised the wider community impact of their actions and to help them think through integrating back into society on their release. Now confidentiality means that I am not able to go into individual stories but it was one of the most emotional afternoons I have ever witnessed and really made me think.

For many of these women, the biggest impact was a realisation of their actions on their families and in particular their children.  None of them wanted to duck their own personal actions or deeds but it was the little things they missed the most – not being there for their child’s birthday, Christmas, parents evening and most of all, not being there for their child growing up. They were not after our sympathy or even empathy from any of the visitors but they did want an opportunity to redeem their actions on their release.  There was no doubt in my mind that genuine remorse was shown by them especially to the victim representatives who were also present.  There were under no illusions about how difficult it would be to reintegrate back into society on their release.

The Governor came and presented all of the women with a special certificate for completing this course. For some of them, it was clear that this was the first time that they had ever been given a certificate for anything at all.

Of course, no-one is saying that every prisoner would turn their life round in this way or by other education programmes or by drug support services.  But if it means that some people change their ways then that has to be good for everyone. Hopefully, whoever is elected on Friday will join me in supporting funding for this type of activity no matter how unpopular it might be with the wider Surrey electorate.



3 thoughts on “Do prisons really work?

  1. leftoflightwater

    Prison works just fine…if your aim is simply to remove certain individuals from the streets (there’s at least one Surrey PCC candidate who is quite open about doing this).

    The problem is, prison doesn’t work if your objective is keeping people safe. Sure, whilst the criminal is incarcerated, they can’t be committing crimes on the streets; but apart from a very small number of offenders, everyone gets released sometime. And then what? A Ministry of Justice study showed that a cohort of offenders released in 2000:

     27.9 per cent re-offended within one year;
     38.9 per cent after 2 years;
     53.2 per cent after 5 years; and,
     58.9 per cent after nine years.

    (and that’s only what they were caught doing!). It is estimated that 480,000 offenders released in 2000 committed a further 3.6 million crimes in that nine-year period.

    For many people, the assumption is that offenders are “normal” people, just like them, with the same life chances, who decided one day to become a criminal. But it’s rather more complicated than that; for example, more than 70% of the prison population in Britain has two or more diagnosable mental health disorders. Many have drug addiction problems, and the vast majority come from chaotic family backgrounds.

    That’s why Integrated Offender Management programmes, run by councils, police and probation trusts working together, have adopted a “seven pathways” model to identify the holistic needs around an offender. These are:

    Education, training and employment
    Drugs and alcohol
    Finance, benefit and debt
    Children and families
    Attitudes, thinking and behaviour

    If we can get these right, the chances are we can massively reduce the likelihood of an individual reoffending.

    You might think this is lefty nonsense. But every time an offender doesn’t commit an offence, that’s one less victim of crime.

  2. Chris

    A good read Rodney. Things are never as cut and dried as the pure numbers may appear.

    As to whether prisons ‘work’, I think the answer is always a ‘yes and no’; dependant on the person, the individual crime, and the deterrent factor.


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