The Channel 4 documentary series, Prison, that premiered last night shines a vital spotlight on life behind bars – the drug addictions, the violence, and the organised crime that sees prison as a business opportunity. But it also highlights the bravery of our prison staff – the passion, good humour and serious thought they put into protecting the public and rehabilitating offenders.
The prison population is at a ten-year low but it is still high by historic standards and behind the statistics there are real people with often troubling histories. The knock-on effects of crime to communities, to families and to individuals are devastating. If we are going to make meaningful change on this then I accept that we need to focus on rehabilitation.
Watching the documentary last night reinforced for me more than ever that criminals go to prison as punishment, not for punishment – turning their lives around should always be the goal for their time inside. But some prisons are failing to meet the basic standards to do that effectively. That’s why last week I announced a £30million package to start bringing our prisons back up to scratch – so they can become launching pads for rehabilitation.
That money will make prisons cleaner – allowing us to start fixing broken cells and showers, as well as updating decrepit catering facilities. It will make prisons more decent – with carefully controlled in-cell telephones and digital kiosks, so that offenders can keep in better contact with their support networks at home and organise visits more easily, without hours of queueing that can cause tension and uses up valuable staff time.
The fund will also make prisons more secure – with state-of-the-art scanners, phone blocking technology and improved searching techniques, to disrupt the supply of drugs, the addictions they sustain and the violence they can start. Finally, it will make them safer – with the roll out of a digital categorisation tool, bringing together all the intelligence at our disposal to categorise offenders based on their risk of being involved in organised crime, escape, or violence.
Our focus cannot be limited to the physical infrastructure of prisons – we need to get the culture right too. I believe that decent incentives and effective sanctions can motivate offenders to take responsibility for their own rehabilitation. So, I want to see governors making much better use of behaviour related pay for prison work and access to enhanced living conditions for those who get their heads down, play by the rules and put in the work to change their ways.
In May I launched an Education and Employment strategy designed to put offenders on the path to paid work from the moment they enter prison. As part of the strategy, we consulted on using strictly controlled temporary releases to incentivise prisoners to get work experience and learn new skills. This is critical to how they become successful contributors to society as they leave prison.
But rehabilitation isn’t just about what we do in prisons – we need to address the origins of offending as well.
Last month I launched a strategy for female offenders. Many of these women are vulnerable people with complex needs. Too often they have experienced chaotic lifestyles involving substance misuse, mental health problems, abuse or homelessness. Frequently they are mothers. Our strategy recognises that short custodial sentences do little to disrupt their cycle of re-offending. In fact, they simply lead to a revolving door, in and out of prison, that can make women even more susceptible to lives of crime.
Instead I want to focus on strengthening community sentencing where there is clear evidence of positive results. That’s because the strict conditions attached to community sentencing enable offenders to address the underlying causes of their crimes and get the support they need to move forward with their lives.
By no means is this about giving criminals an easy ride. Addiction and mental health conditions are diseases. When they affect offenders, treating them requires targeted intervention from criminal justice and health authorities, as well as determination from individuals to take responsibility for themselves. Being in recovery is crucial in enabling them to turn away from crime for good.
Everything we’re doing is about making our system better geared towards that goal of rehabilitation and supporting offenders to stay out of jail permanently. Achieving reform won’t be easy. But when I see how dedicated our prison staff are to getting results, I know that it is possible.
David Gauke is the justice secretary and Conservative MP for South West Hertfordshire