09/02/2016 10:23 GMT | Updated 08/02/2017 05:12 GMT

We Need Proper Prison Reforms, Not Just Tory Tinkering


The prison reforms proposed by David Cameron on Monday are a welcome announcement, but they mark a decisive change in Tory policy and they barely touch the surface of the challenges confronting our prisons.

Let's start with numbers. The prison population today is almost 85,000, virtually the same as it was in May 2010. In fact, it reached a record high of 88,179 under the Tories in 2011 as it was pushed to capacity. Reducing the prison size has hardly been a priority for the Government for the last 6 years.

Next, attitudes towards eduction. In 2013, the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling introduced a ban on books being sent to prisoners. His reasoning? It could result in contraband being smuggled in. The ridiculous ban was overturned just 12 months later when the High Court declared the ban 'unlawful'. Not really the actions of a Government that values the education of prisoners.

Now let's turn to staff. In 2010, there were almost 24,000 members of staff in Government-run prisons. As of December 2015, that figure was under 15,000. The Tories have overseen a reduction of prison staff of about 40% whilst the prison population has remained the same. Those who remain are over stretched and levels of morale are the lowest they have been for years.

Finally, the absence of rehabilitation. Cameron went from 'hugging a hoodie' to becoming a justice hard liner soon after entering Number 10. Prisons have remained places where prisoners learn to become better criminals instead of leaving as reformed individuals, and one in every four prisoners have been jailed previously, a figure which has remained unchanged for the last decade.

If we want to reduce the number of prisoners, we need to invest in alternative forms of punishment. Restorative justice, where an offender meets the victim, has been successful in reducing crime rates in many countries and it must become the norm if we are to reduce recidivism. Community sentences require supervisors actively involved with the offender rather than just observing them, and that means employing more supervisors. Electronic tags should be used less sparingly and accompanied by closer surveillance.

Keeping someone in prison costs £100 per day. If that money was used efficiently to pay for alternative forms of punishment with proven track records in countries such as Sweden, then the prison bill could easily be cut with no risk to the public.

Obviously, non-custodial punishments will not be appropriate in all cases. There will always be criminals who are beyond rehabilitation, such as many of those who have committed serious crimes, but we should be willing to devote our efforts towards those who can still change including first timers and young offenders. Otherwise, we will simply continue paying over the odds for an archaic system that doesn't work and the costs will be much more than just financial.