Inescapable truths about our outdated prisons

Frances Crook has been a voice of reason in the charity sector for 35 jare (The reform of prisons has been my life’s work, but they are still utterly broken, 10 Augustus). Like her, I have led several charities to make some sense of imprisonment and to help people come back into the community better, not worse. She is right that reform is at the bottom of the agenda for recent governments, irrespective of the fact that it costs us all a lot of money.

How many people know that a year in prison costs about £40,000, somewhat more than private schools? The total cost of the roughly 80,000 prisoners in the system is more than £3bn a year. Budgets have been cut year after year and all but the most basic education projects have largely ceased to exist. I chair the board of a small charity, Sussex Pathways, which provides volunteer key workers who work on a release plan with prison residents on a one-to-one basis for about three months, looking at an individual’s needs including housing, gesondheid, addictions, education, family ties, employment and so on. The reduction in the likelihood of reoffending is about 80%, whereas without this support, it’s the exact opposite. It shouldn’t just be down to charities to try to mend some of the most challenging of society’s ills.
Margaret Carey
Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex

It’s beyond doubt that prisons should do more to help prisoners turn their lives around. To achieve this, the prison system must have education at its heart, turning prisons into centres of learning and giving every prisoner the chance to access educational opportunities that are right for them. This means making a broader range of courses available, including vocational courses, GCSEs, A-levels and university degrees. But it also means transforming the culture of prisons to make education a priority, not an afterthought. Evidence shows that engagement with education improves the chances of getting a job on release and reduces reoffending. The forthcoming prisons white paper is a chance to recognise this.
Jon Collins
Chief executive, Prisoners’ Education Trust

I have a lot of sympathy for Frances Crook because I was the adult education adviser for Lancashire’s local education authority for 20 years and had responsibility for education in the six prisons in the county. I was able to make two modest contributions to life in prison, one of which I think is embedded and the other was short-lived. The small success was to persuade governors to include a literacy test in their initial assessment of prisoners and, surprise, surprise, around 30% of the intake was illiterate. If we provided courses during the day, the prisoners lost out on the meagre wages they were paid for work done in the prison, and it was not popular to run classes in the evening as this was considered to be recreation time.

The short-lived introduction was a joint exercise with the probation service to appoint liaison officers, who would visit a prisoner prior to release to check if they were involved in vocational studies that they could not complete. They then introduced the ex-prisoner to a local college to enable them to complete their course. The posts were eventually the victims of cuts. Change is not part of the vocabulary of prison governance.
David Selby
Winchester

I was saddened to read Frances Crook’s article. I only wish that before she retires from the Howard League for Penal Reform she might visit Dumfries prison. My two visits there – with a Quaker group and a U3A branch – were uplifting. It has a fine education section where they teach prisoners to read and write, an excellent room for prisoners to play with their children (under supervision), kitchens where prisoners are taught to cook and can serve a meal to their families, and a wonderful woodwork shop where they make items for the local area, like a swing for a person in a wheelchair who was going to a park.

They are fortunate to have a football pitch (with coaching from local club staff) and gardens that produce 15% of the prison’s food. I felt really proud of the town’s forward-thinking establishment of correction with its positive, helpful ethos. If only they were all like that.
Helen Keating
Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Galloway

We all owe a debt of gratitude to Frances Crook for her work on behalf of justice and decency. Her article is a catalogue of horrors that exposes the real criminals in our society. Instead of incarcerating the weak, damaged and vulnerable, we should be handing out sentences to the politicians and their friends who have produced this sorry state. The pilferers from the public purse, the chummy contract awarders, the austerity ideologues. What hasn’t been ruined by their greed and fanaticism? Housing, education, youth services, mental health provision, local government, probation, libraries, the NHS – nothing has been left untouched by hypocrites who blame the victims of the wicked activity of an overprivileged few.
Kevin Donovan
Birkenhead, Merseyside

Very few of our prison population have an MPhil degree in criminology from the University of Cambridge, as I had, before getting banged up in “the last unreformed public service”, as Frances Crook describes it. I had dared to grow and supply some “demon weed” (cannabis) for myself and others, so did an 18-month sentence with Her Majesty. With time on my hands I puzzled about it all, and my plea is for offenders to be treated as well as household waste, ie sorted and redirected.

Rather than prisons being general dustbins for all manner of rejected mankind, let us at least sort through this supposed “trash”. There is a world of difference between the dangerous criminal psychopath or terrorist and the poor, illiterate, confused, persistent petty offender. They need to go by different recycling routes for any effective outcome; such differentiation “inside” as exists is woeful.

The radical overhaul and shrunken estate Crook proposes would indeed be transformational, but as the system acts as a mirror reflecting an inchoate state, it will, I fear, continue unreformed as the leviathan devouring lives, resources and our taxes too.
Roderick Anderson Read
Ely, Cambridgeshire

People in prison and those drawn into extremist groups invariably have mental health problems emerging from a disadvantaged history. They may join an extremist group to feel they belong somewhere, or take drugs to block out bad thoughts and become aggressive, ending up locked in cells for most of the day in prison. They are neither understood nor helped with their underlying issues. When I was in detention over 50 jare terug, it was a place you learned how to do the next burglary or drug deal better. Nothing’s changed in that time other than you are isolated for longer, exacerbating mental health issues. More mental health professionals in prisons and in Prevent would help, but it’s an emotional understanding across the board that needs to be driven by politicians.
Baden Smith
Gestalt psychotherapist

Frances Crook’s excellent article should be compulsory reading not just for the secretary of state for justice but for all government ministers, prison governors, judges and anyone involved in the administration of justice. We should all take to heart the words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”, words which are as true today as they were 150 years ago when he wrote them.
Michael Darlow
Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

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