16/02/2017 07:22 GMT | Updated 16/02/2018 05:12 GMT

Can Prisons Be More Than 'Warehouses Of Pain'?

We need to decide what prison is for. Is the emphasis on locking away those who have committed crimes, so we don't have to think about them, or is it engaging with the issues that put them there and offering skills and support to prevent them returning?

A friend recently returned from holiday to find they had been victims of a burglary. Clothes, possessions, children's toys were strewn around the house, valuable and precious personal items gone forever, and with it the clammy feeling of having been violated in some way. There's a good chance the crime was committed by someone who has already been in prison. 46% of adult prisoners who are released are back inside again within a year, and that figure rises to 68% of under 18s.

It is not particularly controversial to say that our prisons are in crisis. As this week's Panorama programme revealed, drug usage is rampant, violence never far beneath the surface. Last year saw 290 deaths in prison - the highest number recorded in a 12-month period. Prison tends to be a gathering point for many of the most vulnerable in our society, where literacy rates are low, levels of mental health illness very high. They are so often, in the words of one of our prison Chaplains, 'warehouses of pain'.

On average, 65 assaults take place every day on inmates or prison officers. It's not hard to find the reason. Since 1993, the prison population has almost doubled and yet over the past six years, the number of prison officers has fallen by over a quarter. Liz Truss, the Justice Secretary has announced plans to recruit 2500 more prison officers. That will help, but will still leave staffing levels well below what they were just six years ago. It's also not easy to recruit staff to an industry with low morale, relatively low pay and a high risk of violent attack.

We need to decide what prison is for. Is the emphasis on locking away those who have committed crimes, so we don't have to think about them, or is it engaging with the issues that put them there and offering skills and support to prevent them returning? The church is deeply involved in the prison system with Chaplains in prisons up and down the country. Christians have a strong doctrine of punishment - that there are such things as good and evil, and acts that are destructive of people or community should receive due punishment. We have an even stronger belief in redemption, that in the end there are evil acts, but no irredeemably evil people. As a result, we believe that prison is, yes, a place of punishment, but should even more be a place dedicated to a serious attempt at rehabilitation.

Even if the theological point doesn't convince, the economic one might. Reoffending by recent ex-offenders costs the economy between £9.5 and £13bn each year. Or if the economic argument doesn't work, then think what it feels like to be a victim of crime, feeling your streets are unsafe, your community plagued by violence, or your children liable to be drawn into the rampant drug culture that feeds so much prison life.

Most prison staff do heroic work under extreme pressure, yet with a system stretched as it is, all they can do is somehow keep the lid on. Any systematic attempt at rehabilitation, re-education and redemption is almost impossible under such pressure. Messages from the Justice Secretary Liz Truss suggest that the Rehabilitation Revolution championed by her predecessor, Michael Gove, is in danger of stalling, with the reluctance to commit to reducing the prison population.

One sign of hope is the small platoons of voluntary workers, many from Christian inspired charities, who do superb work in mentoring prisoners, meeting them at the gate, helping them to find jobs and accommodation, encouraging their families and guiding them into drug free, law abiding lives. Among the charities in this field that I particularly admire are Prison Fellowship (which has over 3,200 volunteers working in some 120 prisons); Caring for Ex-Offenders; PACT; and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Their work often goes wider and deeper than anything that the state can offer.

We need a greater openness to the use of such volunteers (lack of funding has meant a cutback in working with many partner organisations), along with a serious commitment to increase the number of prison officers and a long-term intention to reduce the prison population. This can be done by introducing problem solving courts, sentence reviewing by judges, and sorting out the injustices felt by prisoners long past their sentencing tariff who are still kept in jail under the discredited IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection) rules scheme.

Prisons are not a vote winner. No party ever got elected on a promise to spend more on prisons. Out of sight, out of mind, seems to be our preferred way of dealing with the issue - until, that is, we get burgled, or assaulted, or run over by a drink driver. The prize, however, is high. Imagine a prison system that took in some of the most violent and vulnerable people in our society and rather than increasing their frustration and criminality, enabled them to learn the skills and motivation to become mentors of the next generation who might be drawn into crime? Imagine reoffending rates dropping so that prisons began to empty, crime rates began to fall and drug and gang culture beginning to disappear.

Failure to address the crisis in our prisons is short-sighted and only feeds the endless cycle of drug-fuelled criminality and the misery that violent crime brings to victims and ultimately perpetrators. Prisons are a golden opportunity to address the needs of some of the most vulnerable and needy people in our society. All it needs is the will to make it happen.