The paradox of the modern prison
Almost half of all prisoners in Britain will reoffend within their first year of release and at £13 billion per year the cost to the economy is an equally huge figure. Hollie Brotherton investigates the realities of one of societies most overlooked expenses.
“People think that prisoners don’t deserve to have anything,” says Erwin James. The ex-convict turned journalist sits across from me in his country home. An anomaly of our chaotic penal system, his gentle disposition belies the twenty years he spent serving time for murder. His wife, Margaret, offers me tea and cake.
“What’s happened is the media has presented this dark, mysterious figure; the prisoner who is out to cause harm. We don’t think of individuals with needs and failings that need to be addressed, people who perhaps have mental health problems, people who need to be helped.”
2014 saw the highest number of prison suicides in seven years and the most assaults on adult male prisoners since records began. Our ever-rising prison population has reached 86,000 and with cuts of £236 million in the last three years it appears standards are unsurprisingly slipping.
“In some respects they’ve improved because we have integral sanitation,” says James. First imprisoned in 1984, he recalls eight years of no electricity or running water and a bucket for a toilet. “Now there’s more access to hygiene facilities, but if the purpose of prison is to get offenders out better people than they were when they went in, it’s not just about the basics it’s about attitudes and treatment.”
At the end of September last year, 80 of the 118 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded, with 22% of prisoners doubled up in cells designed for one person. “The prison population has grown but facilities haven’t grown with it,” James tells me. “It comes down to funding and resourcing. Nobody cares if prisoners aren’t getting anything. They shut their eyes until it’s someone in their family or a friend.”
Despite the financial cuts, the taxpayer spends on average £36,000 per prisoner per year, far more than the cost of sending children to Eton or Oxbridge.
Education is only compulsory at the lowest level. It’s been over a decade since Martin Narey introduced the basic skills programme for prisoners who can’t read or write, which today accounts for a grossly high 60%. This isn’t sufficient in enabling prisoners to improve their employability. For the 47% who say they have no qualifications, work based training is essential but it is currently optional.
Richard Armstrong, a prison student support worker, says there is a link between children who struggle to develop good language skills at school and those who end up in prison. “It’s actually seen as the root cause of antisocial behaviour,” he says. “Poor language skills develop into negative psychopathologies later in life when demands on children continue to increase. The child with poor oral language gets left further and further behind with a negative attitude towards school and authority figures. Dropping out of school is seen as one of the key predictors of criminality and it’s something that researchers are actively trying to prevent.”
Often labelled as cheats of society and heavily criticised, it seems that little thought goes to an offenders background and their early life. Children in care make up 33% of boys and 61% of girls in custody. Erwin James was living on the streets at the age of 10 and in care from the age of 11.
“I was just a kid the first time I committed a crime,” he says. “I was 10 years old and I broke into a sweet shop. I wasn’t a dangerous person; I was just a kid who lived on the streets but they put me away and for the rest of my life I thought I was a criminal. So when I was struggling a bit it was no big deal to get drunk, have a fight or even steal a car. It gradually progressed and my criminality became worse because all I ever got was punishment. The tragic irony in my case was that I never got any help until I was convicted of murder and went to prison for life.
“I think if we can help these people who are coming out of prison earlier, we can stop them becoming serial, violent offenders who cause serious harm to others. When people start accumulating criminal convictions, statistically they become more serious offences. It’s no good saying just give them bigger sentences. Give them a big sentence by all means, but while they’re in there help them.”
One prison taking an alternative approach is HMP Grendon, a place which offers a unique regime in therapeutic care for offenders. “They have an ethos of openness, encouraging prisoners to take responsibility for their actions,” says Dr Michelle Newbury, a former psychologist at the prison. “They encourage offenders to understand their behaviour, thus being more consistent with a rehabilitative approach. Research suggests that prisoners who stay in treatment for 18 months or longer have a reduced reoffending rate of between one fifth and a quarter.”
The down side is that therapeutic community prisons tend to be more expensive to run and therefore we may not see a rise in them. Cuts to prison budgets means there are 10,000 fewer front line staff than there were 10 years ago. The deterioration has resulted in prisons becoming more violent, unsafe places where offenders feel vulnerable, leading to suicide and self harm.
“When you dig a bit deeper you see that actually these people need help,” says James. “Offenders need to be supported and encouraged. Not to make their life better primarily, but to make society safer when they get out and reduce the number of their potential victims.”
He’s not the only ex prisoner campaigning for a more successful system. Ben Gunn was convicted of murder at 14 and locked up until the age of 47. The self-described godfather of prison reform believes there is too much focus on punishment and not enough on rehabilitation. “Prison is designed to damage the individuals that go there and it does a reasonably good job of doing that,” he says. “You can’t hurt people at the same time as trying to heal them. Both aims undermine each other.”
England and Wales have the highest prison population in Western Europe, a stark contrast to Sweden where prisons are closing due to a decline in the number of admissions. As Norway also boast reoffending rates of less than 16%, is the Scandinavian prison model something we should aim to replicate here in Britain?
Are Høidal is the governor of a maximum-security prison in Norway called Halden. Set in a forest with an award winning interior design it has the reputation as the most humane prison in the world. Inmates are encouraged to make the most of the facilities, which include a library and a gym.
Høidal tells me that the aim is to simulate life outside in order for inmates to easily reintegrate into society on release. “In Norwegian law it is stipulated that inmates have the same rights as other citizens,” he says. “Their only punishment is their restriction of liberty. The more closed a system is, the harder it will be for prisoners to return to freedom. Who do you want as your neighbour when they are released? We must focus on rehabilitation to prevent reoffending.”
The National Offender Management Service say they plan to tackle the problem of persistently high reoffending rates by opening up the delivery of rehabilitation services to a diverse range of public, private and voluntary sector providers. They also want to extend rehabilitation support to an extra 45,000 offenders on short sentences, who are currently given no support on release and have the highest reoffending rates.
“We’ve got to bring in the opportunity for offenders to go back into society as valued members of a local community,” says Glyn Travis, Assistant Secretary of the Prison Officers Association. “We need to find them employment where possible and make sure the temptation of crime is removed.”
Travis believes reoffending rates are a more wide scale problem and there is a bigger picture than people envisage. “Society as a whole has got to change,” he says. “What the taxpayers can do is turn around to our government and ask about their manifesto on crime. We don’t need to hear they’re getting tough on crime; we need to know how they’re going to make society and communities safer. Prisons aren’t a vote winner. Most people aren’t interested, but they cannot be overlooked. They’ve got to be funded and resourced properly.
“Ultimately, the real hidden cost of prisons is the money taxpayers spend picking up the pieces of rehabilitation failures. We absolutely need to change the views of society to place importance on the prison system.”