THE BLOG
10/02/2016 07:05 GMT | Updated 10/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Prisons Can Work - But Let Us In to Help!

Whatever your views as to the content of his speech this week, the Prime Minister has to be congratulated for making the first major speech by a premier on our prison system for decades. For far too long, senior politicians have ignored the enormous issue of tackling the failings of our prisons system and pandered to the ill-informed 'prison works' reactionaries. So to hear a Prime Minister addressing these issues head-on is genuinely welcome; there may not be many votes in it, but giving strong leadership on and attention to this topic is, quite simply, the right thing to do.

And there is much to be applauded in the content of the speech itself. Prison sentences are supposed to be about punishment for crime AND about rehabilitation. Sadly, it is only the punishment element that seems to have been given priority. And prisons don't even seem to be much of a punishment if the soaring prison population and enormously high rate of re-offending are anything to go by; the Prime Minister himself highlighted that 46% of all prisoners will re-offend within a year of release and 60% of short-sentenced prisoners will reoffend within the same period. So I am delighted that the Prime Minister made clear that the success of prisons must be judged increasingly by their ability to help their charges to break the re-offending cycle.

I am particularly pleased that the Prime Minister recognised the vital role that employment can play in preventing re-offending. For example, the Prime Minister's support for Business in the Community's 'Ban the Box' campaign and the pledge that the civil service will not require inappropriately early or unnecessary disclosure of criminal offences in job recruitment is excellent news. But there is so much to do to help charities and employers to work with prisons to make a real difference.

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Rights-free image via Pixabay.com

Mosaic's offender mentoring programme, alongside other similar schemes, has a big role in connecting offenders with employers. We were very pleased that the then Justice Secretary launched the employability initiative of our programme back in 2014 with Mitie CEO Ruby McGregor-Smith and our supporters at the Al Faisal Foundation. We also welcomed Prisons Minister Andrew Selous MP to join our founder HRH the Prince of Wales to see the programme at HMP Leeds last November. We know that our programme makes a real difference - with re-offending rates some one-third lower than the average - but scaling the programme up is proving difficult.

As a former civil servant, I am loath to criticise my former colleagues, especially those at the Ministry of Justice with whom I used to work. However, my experience of trying to scale up our offender mentoring programme to meet the ever-increasing need has led me to the sad conclusion that the prison system has for too long been designed around administrative convenience rather than to serve its purpose as a rehabilitation agency. At the current time, Mosaic has over 100 trained volunteer mentors ready to support offenders in prison prior to their release, yet we cannot match them. Prisons want our volunteers to help (they don't have to even pay for Mosaic's programme) but the system makes it enormously difficult for them to find the staff time to facilitate access to the offenders wanting our help. Let alone navigating around the alphabet soup of agencies whom have to be consulted and involved before anyone can start helping.

If the promised freedoms for Prison Governors to make local decisions announced by the Prime Minister can cut through the current Gordian Knot of stultifying bureaucracy, no one will be more pleased than us at Mosaic. If, however, these changes will mean that we have to continue to negotiate separate arrangements with each prison to enable our support to be used - arrangements which then have to be re-negotiated each time a new Governor arrives - then I fear that we will be no further forward. There must therefore be a strong presumption placed on Governors that their role is to facilitate long-term, easy access by charities and employers to help provide support to inmates.

The Prime Minister's speech also, understandably, covered the issue of extremism in prisons. I look forward to reading the results of the review on this issue commissioned by the Justice Secretary; I just hope it will take a properly broad perspective. Mosaic has for some time been calling for a proper review of the reasons behind the shocking - and growing - over-representation of Muslims in prison. The Baroness Young review highlighted that only 1% of this group of prisoners were convicted of terrorism-related offences. So just what is behind this seemingly inexorable rise and what support do such individuals need to stop their re-offending? Mosaic has teamed up with the Prison Reform Trust and Cambridge University to research this very issue. I do hope that Mr Gove and others will look favourably on providing funding for this research.

Prisons are necessary. But we must ensure that we as a society do everything possible to keep people out of prisons in the first place. And we must ensure that truly effective support is available to the vast majority of offenders who would much rather have a regular job to support them and their families. That means that prisons must welcome with open arms those organisations and companies willing to help offenders back in to society.