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A Helping Hand

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The Ministry of Justice, led by Ken Clarke, is determined to dramatically reduce the prison population from its all time high of 83,000 inmates, and with it, an equally dramatic reduction in prison staff.

In principle, these are laudable aims.  In the recent past, far too many custodial sentences have been passed on the back of increasingly draconian legislation.  The purpose was to bring conformity into the sentencing regime, and to pay lip service to the mantra that “prison works”.

We all know the statistics.  It costs the taxpayer on average £25,000 per annum for every prisoner, and the cost increases further with Category A prisoners.  We are also told that at least one third of all serving prisoners are serving a sentence of twelve months or less, so barely time to settle in before it’s time to leave.

An even more frightening statistic is the rate of re-offending, put at 60%, and opponents of the “prison works” mantra point to this statistic as support for their claim that “prison doesn’t work”.  But they are missing the point.

Of course “prison works” if the purpose of the exercise is to keep dangerous or prolific offenders off the streets.  This is self evident.  But with a few rare exceptions, you can’t keep them locked up for ever.

The prison regime provides a support service almost second to none.  The prisoner has available to him counselling, as well as courses tailor made to address the issues which led to his imprisonment in the first place.  Drink awareness, anger management, respect, sexual deviancies, all these courses and more to help the prisoner in his rehabilitation.

But in spite of all this help, the prisoner remains vulnerable upon release, and without further and continuing support, the system is setting him up to fail.

We all know that clever criminals rarely get caught, and in some cases, they are offered a life peerage.  The recidivists are those who start out with nothing in life, no family support, no education worth spit, and no employment prospects, so they drift into a life of crime, and, as night follows day, they will be caught, prosecuted and imprisoned.  And when they come out, whist they may have an awareness of their own shortcomings, for the most part they are still the same social ‘inadequates’ with no family support, no education worth spit, and no employment prospects.  Couple this with the attack on the welfare culture, where long term recidivists may be forced kicking and screaming into the unskilled labour market, and the competition for jobs will become intense.

Time and again I hear stories of prisoners pushed out into the street, with the price of a bus fare in their pocket and little else, a soldier’s farewell, and may the road of life rise with you, which of course it doesn’t.

The Probation Service, tasked with the responsibility of helping these ex-prisoners, is also under siege as a target of spending cuts, so they have increasingly less to offer by way of support in the community.  Besides which, they see their primary, and sometimes only, task, as one of man management, so the process of rehabilitation grinds quickly to a halt.

In an ideal world, some of the savings to be made when the prison population reduces should be applied to a real and meaningful support system after release.  It may not be the panacea to all ills, but it would go a long way to addressing the post release problems.  If, at the same time, it achieves even a modest reduction in the rate of re-offending, the taxpayer and the law abiding citizen would be the ultimate beneficiaries.

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