Improving prisoner rehabilitation

Improving prisoner rehabilitation

England, Scotland and Wales have the highest per-capita incarceration rates in Western Europe and 48% of people released from prison go on to be reconvicted within a year. The cost of reoffending is £18.1 billion per year.

Improving prison rehabilitation
"Community sentences are statistically proven to reduce reoffending at a higher rate than short custodial sentences." - Angela Allcock, Fellow

Why is that money being spent, when other countries around the world have managed to step away from a criminal justice system centred on punitive incarceration and reduce crime? Why is there no meaningful challenge to the rhetoric that a successful criminal justice system is one that is ‘tough on crime’? And why does ‘toughness’ equate to treating people inhumanely?

These questions are the starting point from which I began to look at the state of our criminal justice system and question why we pursue policies that data and evidence show do not make society safer.

I have recently written a book, Criminal – How Our Prisons Are Failing Us All, after witnessing first-hand how our system of incarceration neither rehabilitates offenders nor helps to create ‘better neighbours’. My research focused on finding out how we can emulate the examples of other countries and create a system that functions effectively for all. The book highlights the stories of people in prison, setting them in a wider context to demonstrate with data quite how badly our prisons are failing. I am working alongside a number of organisations in the sector to promote the discussion of prison reform and include politicians from all political parties in this conversation. I have had contact from politicians saying that they will look into issues around Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) and I hope that, as the book gains traction, we can push the cause of prison reform. Here are some suggestions of my own.

Portugal has decriminalised drugs. In doing so, they have seen a significant reduction in drug-related crime. Those found with drugs are diverted away from custody if their drug use is problematic and they require medical and psychological support to manage their addiction. If we followed the lead of Portugal, we could address the underlying issues that lead to crime for around 15% of the prison population.

Norway entirely overhauled its criminal justice system in the 1990s and saw a reduction in recidivism from around 70% to 20%. This has been attributed to the ideological shift from ‘revenge’ to rehabilitation. This change in ideology must come from the top and be inculcated through the whole staff team. Enhanced training, pay and conditions for staff, with an emphasis on compassion and dignity throughout, is vital.

Community sentences are statistically proven to reduce reoffending at a higher rate than short custodial sentences. There must be a concerted effort to adequately resource the providers of community sentences, and these should always be the first option available to magistrates for sentences of 12 months or less. An ‘opt-out’ policy, where a magistrate must explain why they are choosing a custodial sentence over a community sentence, should be implemented.

Any person incarcerated under an IPP sentence should immediately have their sentence reviewed, with a view to releasing all prisoners over their tariff time. This type of sentence was abolished in 2012, yet it continues to punish people who were caught up in it over a decade ago.

80,000 men, women and children are incarcerated at any one time in our prisons in England and Wales. These people statistically have higher mental health problems, learning disabilities and substance misuse issues than the general population. One in four are care experienced. People from the global majority are more likely to be sentenced, and for longer, than their white counterparts. People in prison are more likely to have experienced poverty and abuse in childhood. Campaigning to reform our prisons serves these people, who have often been woefully underserved by society by the time they enter custody.

Not only that, but our prison system does not make society safer. Data shows no proven link between increased incarceration and a reduction in crime. This campaigning, therefore, intends to benefit all our communities, who are no safer because of our flawed and failed system.

My next steps are to bring attention to the issue of Imprisonment for Public Protection. I am working on a number of projects that aim to highlight this inhumane and unjust sentence, which still hangs over thousands of men and women a decade on from when it was abolished.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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