Gove's got it right (again): prisons don't work

EDITOR'S BLOG: Take a trip inside. It's not like it was in 'Porridge'.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 09 Feb 2016

I’ve visited seven prisons during my life - strictly in the cause of reporting rather than repaying any debt to society. I’d recommend a trip inside for anyone who has yet to make one. It is quite an eye-opener and changes a lot of preconceived beliefs about crime and punishment.

Two will remain stuck in my mind. First, was the mother and baby unit at Styal near Manchester. There I met a number of young women - mostly drug ‘mules’ or ‘stuffers and swallowers’ as the HM Customs people call them - from Africa who were living within the fence with very small children. It was a thoroughly depressing place. The only heartening thing was that the kids were too small to recall where they had begun their lives and at least they hadn’t been put up for adoption or fostering. Yet.      

The other was a high security establishment near Montreal in Canada. I was there to observe family visits to lifers. In an attempt to keep families together, minimising the damage done to children and to use as an incentive to good behaviour, families are allowed inside prison to spend time with their husband/father.

‘My’ family - including three kids - were spending the weekend with a murderer in a caravan within the prison walls. The transformation of the guy from rock hard man walking the corridors to meeting his kids was extraordinary. It was a lot more raw and moving and awful than ‘Porridge’. Incidentally, while even Russia allows family visits the UK does not. The Brit prison officers rose up as one when the idea was suggested, saying they refused to be ‘licensed brothel keepers’.    

Michael Gove is not afraid of a good fight. The new Justice Secretary has seen a lot of stuff he doesn’t like within his ministry. He wants to make changes. And in taking on the prison establishment he will encounter some of the same doughty entrenched interests he did while at Education. The Prison Officers Association has more than a little in common with the recalcitrant National Union of Teachers.

But Gove’s instincts are entirely right. It is little short of a scandal that almost 50% of those incarcerated will reoffend within a year of being released. Nobody at Ofsted would accept outcomes like this. The amount of money we waste on a system that completely fails to do anything other than bang people up for a period is an enduring scandal.

This isn’t a place to get into the ins and outs of the justice system and an examination of the ethics of punishment, but why on earth has the prison population doubled over the last 20 years to almost 85,000? Why in the UK do we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the developed world, outdone only by the shameful situation that exists in the USA?

Business is now heavily involved in the prison system. Serco and G4S, both severely reputationally challenged at the moment, have been running prisons for some time. Some say they have better outcomes than state-run institutions when it comes to re-offending. Others dispute this. But surely one thing that business (and technology) can help with is monitoring many more offenders on the outside, thus preventing them spending all their time with fellow criminals learning more tricks of the trade, whilst also reducing the financial burden on the taxpayer at the same time.

Of course if Gove does get his way there will be dreadful Daily Mail headlines. There will be felons who because they were not put away will reoffend and cause harm to society - people and property. But it must be a risk worth taking because being tough on crime (and indeed the causes of crime) isn’t working very well at the moment.  


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