UK Liberty

Some thoughts on prison

Posted in law and order by ukliberty on August 5, 2008

A commenter on Tim Worstall’s article about the David Bieber case linked to an article in the Daily Mail, Pampered prisoners supplied with £221,476 PlayStations, which provoked some discussion about what prison is for and what prisoners should be and should not be entitled to.

Now, the article is pretty shoddy so there’s not much point in spending much time on it. For instance, there is a claim about how widespread games consoles are but it works out to about two games consoles to every twelve prisoners, and that’s just an average over the whole prison population – there is no context about what category prisoner is allowed access to them, how they fit into the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, indeed there is no mention of the scheme. Also they gloss over the fact that most of the consoles were bought by the prisoners themselves.

I’m interested in what people think happens in prison, what actually happens, and whether or not it works.

What I mean by ‘works’ is, does it suit our notion of justice, and how does it influence reoffending?

I admit I write from ignorance as I’ve never been to prison as a prisoner nor as a visitor – but then again I think a number of people who get involved in such discussions are in the same boat, so I feel just as qualified as them to have an opinion!

Now, ‘society’ seems conflicted about what it wants from prison, people feel very strongly about crime, and seem to get very angry about stories such as those in the Daily Mail. But they don’t seem to be thinking about the problem objectively.

One interesting comment from an angry Daily Mail reader is this:

A lot of prisoners have better facilities and resources in jail than they do at home.

This may be true but, if so, is that not more of a problem with our economy than leniency in prisons?

Three comments from other Daily Mail readers, which seem fairly typical:

Put them in open cages, outside, and douse them with cold water hourly.

Is it not obvious that prisoners are in jail for a reason and punishment should be the lesson they need not to reoffend.

If i had my way, it would be 23 hour solitary confinement, no personal effects etc with rehabilitation programs, regardless of crime and withdrawal of human rights.

Of course, while criminals are in prison they cannot directly commit crime against those of us outside. But unless they are on whole life tariffs – I think there are only 25 prisoners on whole life tariffs in the UK – they will eventually return to the outside world, and 50% of them will return to crime.

Therefore it seems to me we should consider what happens when they come out – how to reduce the likelihood of reoffending (or recidivism) – how to reduce that 50%.

From what I understand, constant punishment and negativity (for example) isn’t particularly good at reducing reoffending – it’s good to have some sort of reward, some sort of positivity in the process, as well.

So, it is all very well punishing prisoners, and feeling satisfied that they have been brought to book, but there seems little point if they are just as likely to commit crime when they come out.

Apparently the individual prisons and young offender institutes have their own systems of rewards and sanctions, learning and working. I wonder if there has been any research into the rates of reoffending after prisoners are released from those individual prisons. According to Jack Straw, Minister for Justice, some government research will be published later this year.

Some people complain that prisoners are allowed to gain NVQs (for example) while inside – well, do NVQs help?

John B said,

Actually and empirically they do.

The point about an NVQ is that it demonstrates basic reading and numeracy skills. Since the percentages of prisoners with writing, arithmetic and reading skills below the average 11-year-old are 80%, 65% and 50% respectively, this is worth doing. There is strong research showing that giving prisoners basic literacy/numeracy skills brings a significant reduction in reoffending rates.

This is a link to research from Canada. A quote:

although our review of the literature was by no means exhaustive, we did find research to support the contention that participation in Basic Education programs by adult male offenders has a positive effect on their recidivism rates.

Some prisoners in the UK have gained qualifications while inside, and on release found employment. Isn’t this something we should be encouraging, perhaps instead of “putting them in open cages, outside, and dousing them with cold water hourly”?

That is not to say that that education inside will solve all our problems. Of course there will be some who will reoffend regardless. But surely what we want to do is reduce the number by as much as we can. I don’t think such measures are soft – I think they are practical.

Sadly it seems that the rise in prison population (348 Kb PDF) has led to prison overcrowding and, as a result, opportunities for education, training and work are being reduced. I must say that concerns me more than two games consoles between twelve prisoners.


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