Why do we lock-up offenders and throw away the key? What is the point of institutions that create, not better citizens, but model prisoners? When will we realise that investing properly in rehabilitating some of society’s most damaged individuals will pay huge dividends in the long-term?
Back in 2010, then Justice Secretary (Ken Clarke) promised “revolutionary” change: “More than half of the crime in this country is committed by people who have been through the system. We must now take action and shut off this revolving door of crime and reoffending.” In fact, figures showed then that the prison population doubled 1992-2010 as politicians competed to talk toughest on crime. At that time, over 60% those on short sentences were reconvicted and sent back behind bars within one year of their release, demonstrating the system is simply not fit for purpose. There has been some progress with “Community Payback Orders” more widely used, enabling offenders to give back to those they have wronged by maintaining graveyards or creating flowerbeds.
However, I was struck again by the injustice of prisons on hearing the Prime Minister extolling the benefits of work for unemployed people, most recently the obese, or in the example quoted, the young: “From day one they must play their part and make an effort. That could mean making meals for older people, cleaning up litter and graffiti, or working for local charities.” Why is there such an obsession with those on the “dole” and such scant regard for those condemned to enforced idleness, left to rot in a cell?
There are so many amazing stories of how meaningful work and support has transformed the outlook of ex-convicts. From Karen Devlin, “It’s given me my ambition back. I feel like I’ve got something to offer society now”, to Alan Boothroyd who reflects on putting in a raised flowerbed at a disabled school, “When I was in prison, there was no routine but at least with this you’re getting up and going to work”, Community Payback is a win-win situation. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson recently highlighted the excellent work of the Timpson’s prison recruitment scheme, which has thus far employed about 400 ex-cons and only nine turned back to crime: “If we can mend broken objects, shouldn’t we at least try to mend some broken people, too?”
Those who must be locked-up inside prisons to protect society from the danger they pose should still be expected to contribute. More institutions are starting to offer workshops where murderers or burglars can refurbish bicycles or wheelchairs and other items for the disabled in this country and overseas. However, this engages only a small proportion of the 85,567 prison population, which is a real unemployment scandal! Similarly, asylum seekers coming into this country with much-needed skills in medicine or engineering face being forced into idleness whilst their claims for refuge are processed, which can take many months or even years.
If politicians truly believe work is so ennobling and vital, why do they restrict opportunities for individuals to flourish?