I recently took part in a live TV debate with Eric Allison, the Guardian’s prison correspondent, about whether prison worked or not.
Eric is a reformed criminal, who has served many years in prison and now champions prisoners’ rights and fighting alleged miscarriages of justice.
As a career police officer, I, unsurprisingly, have very different views and experiences of the criminal justice system to him.
The first point worth raising is that, in general terms, most people aren’t bothered if prison actually works or not or whether prisoners are held in austere conditions. The popular view would be that dangerous and repeat criminals should be in prison, living a far from cushy lifestyle. So an ex-con trying to raise any level of sympathy for the plight of prisoners has an extremely difficult job right from the start.
Having said that, Eric did raise some very decent points and, as someone who is clearly rehabilitated, his views should have credibility. Eric agrees that dangerous and violent people should be in prison and, for some, they have little chance of ever being rehabilitated.
He points out the futility of sending criminals to prison for less than 12 months under the current detention practices, as over 58 per cent will be caught reoffending after release. Many of the other 42 per cent will reoffend but won’t be caught.
This figure rises to 68 per cent when you consider young offenders aged under 18 years old. The failure to break this cycle is at the heart of the crime problems within the UK.
A recent report by the Inspector of Prisons highlighted some of these young offenders can simply spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells. Proper investment in specialist education, apprenticeships and rehabilitation could reduce crime and alleviate overcrowding in prisons.
The prisons are also bursting at the seams with people suffering from mental health, drug and alcohol problems receiving insufficient help and treatment. They leave prison with exactly the same problems that they had when they initially offended. Inspectorate report after inspectorate report highlights the problems but there appears to be no money or political will to deal with these issues as a priority.
Whilst I disagree with Eric about prisoners’ rights to vote and the use of indeterminate life sentences, even I can see the prison service is creaking and is in need of urgent reform.