Prisons, prisoners and prison conditions

There has been a lot of talk over the last few days about prisons and the conditions within them.  We have seen the traditional tabloid/right-wing mantra of prisons should be tougher and they’re too much like holiday camps.

In Scotland it was suggested that prisoners should have phones inside their cells while in England and Wales the Secretary of State for Justice has said they are looking at the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme; particularly how they could make it tougher.  The former has resulted in condemnation while the latter has resulted in celebration by the tabloid press.

These types of discussions make me angry.  This pandering to prejudice does not help society; it actively harms society.  When talking about prisons and prisoners the terms used are dehumanising in nature: “thug”, “lag”, “lout”, “animal”, “monster” and “caged” are some of the ones I dislike the most.  In order to have a criminal justice system that works we have to proceed on the basis that we are dealing with human beings and not animals.  When we work on the basis that they’re sub-human or animals it becomes so much easier to treat them in a way that would ordinarily be condemned.

There is also a great misconception about prison.  A person is sent to prison as a punishment and not to be punished.  The two are worlds apart and when we recognise that it is prison that is the punishment and not what happens inside the prison; we can begin to think properly about what needs to happen in prison in order to ensure that prisoners are rehabilitated.

The idea of placing phones in each cell is a good one.  It is well known that family contact is important.  Currently there are so few phones in prisons for prisoners’ use that it is not possible to maintain a proper relationship.  Calls are short and there can be significant periods between calls.  The time available for prisoners to use the phone is limited due to the amount of time that they spend out of their cell.  For some it can be a choice between having a shower and making a phone call to their children/parents/partner or whoever else is on the outside.

There is of course written communication.  However, that is still conducted by way of ordinary post.  The time that it takes a letter to get through the system to the prisoner and for that prisoner’s reply to get back through the system it can easily be a whole week.  Visitation is also permitted, but it is also limited by time and numbers.

In other words, the current system isn’t very good at ensuring family contact is maintained.  However, the amount of time that prisoners spend locked in their cell in the evening and over the weekend could be put to better use.  Having phones in the cell will ensure that more prisoners will be able to have better contact with their friends and family on the outside.

Of course, processes would need to be put in place to ensure that the phones are not abused and that is the role of the prison authorities to work that out.  It shouldn’t be dismissed simply because it’s a “perk”.

The idea that prison should be tough is a false presupposition.  For most, the conditions inside of prison play little part in whether they offend/re-offend.  The Conditions outside of prison play more of a role than the conditions inside prison do.  It’s about the community that someone lives in:  if they’re surrounded by people to whom taking drugs and committing crime is normal then that is likely to play a significant part in whether a person begins taking drugs and committing crime.  It’s not the only explanation: people from good backgrounds where drugs and crime is not the norm still commit crime.  However, for those that re-offend after prison the community they go back to plays an important role.

A person can develop a determination to change while in prison; however, upon release the cold hard reality hits them.  They go back into the community from where they came and start associating with the people they associated with before they went into prison: they know nowhere else and know nobody else.  They are then surrounded by all the temptations of drugs and crime that they were before and very quickly they are living their old life again.  That might make people question the sincerity of their determination to change, but it shouldn’t.

Those who have a real determination to want to change should be offered a radical change in lifestyle.  They should be offered the chance to be released into a different location (one which is well away from where they were before prison) and should be placed into contact with people willing to help prisoners on release and who can help guide them through getting a job.  These ordinary people can introduce them to a new community; one where drugs and crime is not the norm.  It’s really an extension of the probation service, but it’s stuff that the probation service doesn’t have the time or the resources to do.  It can be offered to those who are serving both long and short sentences.

I think this kind of approach would radically change re-offending rates.  In order to break the cycle of crime we need to treat people like humans and give them real practical help to radically change their life.  Putting them back into the circumstances they came from is unlikely to really help them change.  Society has to take a greater responsibility for helping break the cycle of crime.  The ultimate decision is that of the offender, but if someone wishes to change then society should get round them and help them to do that.