Let prisoners reform out of jail, says former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith

Smith writes about her Radio 4 prison documentary series Rethinking Clink

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In 1945 there were about 15,000 people in prison in England and Wales. Today there are over 85,000.

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In austerity Britain, do we really want to be funding prison places over classrooms and hospital beds? And it’s not even money well spent. In a system where there are far more prisoners, but not the facilities or staff to manage them, our prison system creates good prisoners, but bad citizens.

Sentences are getting longer, but the vast majority of prisoners will be released. Many of them will then return to prison.

The measure of a successful system should be how many prisoners they keep out of prison because they don’t reoffend, not how many they’re able to accommodate in there.

I didn’t often agree with him, but in February David Cameron made a compelling speech about prison reform. He argued for governors to have more control over what happens in their prison alongside greater transparency on what they achieve.

He recognised that the prisoners of today could be our neighbours tomorrow. And he argued that the prison system needed to attract the brightest staff and the most innovative ideas to help it change.

I believe he was largely right. Even though David Cameron has now gone, I hope the new government renews its commitment to changing our prisons.

In recent weeks I’ve been exploring the history of prison reform for a Radio 4 series called Rethinking Clink. What I’ve learnt is that while the last 250 years have seen enormous changes in prisons, the story of prison reform is also littered with the attempts that failed due to a lack of leadership, resources and support.

I can understand victims of crime thinking that a community sentence is a soft response to the loss or injury they’ve faced. However, new tracking technology gives us the opportunity to get prisoners out during the week, working and earning, as they come towards the end of their sentences or even as an alternative altogether.

You don’t need to think that prison is a holiday camp to prefer prisoners to be earning, contributing and building a new life rather than sitting in a cell for hours on end watching television.

Prison isn’t a great place to offer effective rehabilitation. But prison can help to ensure that people have the basic skills to get work; have maintained their family relationships; and have, as far as possible, thought about changing their lives.

Prison staff having the time to talk with prisoners is vital for giving them the best chance of making the right choices when their sentence is over.  This is also the only long-term way to reduce the ballooning rates of violence that are being widely reported in our prisons. Order and security are as likely to be built on strong routine and relationships as on locked doors and force.

Independent inspection tells us that staff and prisoners are becoming unsafe in prison – history shows us that unrest, violence and escapes often cause the pendulum of reform to swing back. This is a moment to act. Successive governments have brought down crime and the fear of crime.

A public sceptical of being soft on criminals may be willing to accept reform that makes prison more efficient and effective and saves money for other priorities.

But it has to happen now. Without change quickly, the violence and drugs in our prisons will not only potentially harm prisoners and staff, they will explode into events that make reform impossible. There’s no time to lose.  

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The concluding part of Rethinking Clink is on Radio 4 at 8pm on Monday 29th August. Catch up with the first part here