To get really tough on crime, we must help prisoners

Published by The i Paper & The Independent (8th February, 2016)

For many years ministers privately complained that even the most carefully chosen chief inspector of prisons rapidly went ‘native’, undermining their tough stances by bleating on about how bad life was behind bars. Now Nick Hardwick, the latest incumbent, has given insight into this phenomenon by announcing his departure on the grounds he was getting desensitised to the horrors. ‘You get used to things you shouldn’t get used to,’ he said.

Hardwick used two examples. One was men in cramped cells eating meals sitting on a bed by the toilet, which he said disturbed him at first but seemed almost normal now. The other was the epidemic of self-harm and suicide. Latest figures reveal 89 inmates killed themselves last year, compared with 58 in the year David Cameron became Prime Minister, while there have been similar sharp rises in the appalling levels of assaults and male self-harming.

Recent self-inflicted deaths include 21-year-old Luke Hughes. He was let down by prison authorities after begging for protection from gangs that forced him to ferry drugs, then became angry after he was caught. And Sarah Reed, 32, who suffered a severe mental breakdown after the death of her baby, was beaten by a police officer and then banged up in prison after an altercation in hospital, amid swirling allegations of attempted rape.

These stories illustrate how the state repeatedly lets down some of the most vulnerable people in its care: the addicts, the desperate and the disturbed who clog up our prisons. Many spend their lives in and out of jail, costing taxpayers a fortune clearing up their crimes and incarcerating them. Yet despite endless political talk about being tough on the causes of crime, their underlying problems are rarely tackled.

Prison is probably the single biggest indictment of state failure. Indeed, it is odd some right-wingers are such fans. Yet as Hardwick said, we are still waiting for the ‘rehabilitation revolution’ promised when the Tories took power in 2010. There were 85,634 people locked up last week – a few hundred more than when Cameron took office, despite the continuing drop in crime. About the only good news is a small fall in female inmates, although still far too many women are put in jail.

Ken Clarke tried his best as Justice Secretary but screwed up by alienating allies in Downing Street with his bloody-minded independence, while Chris Grayling was just a disaster. His successor, Michael Gove, has spent much of his first few months in the job clearing up the mess; indeed, it is bizarre his bungling predecessor still sits in Cabinet. Yet prison reform is an issue the Prime Minister cares deeply about and close aides say he is determined to transform our creaking criminal justice system.

Cameron has already announced a welcome inquiry into bias against black defendants. Today he will make a major speech on prisons, the first by a Prime Minister for more than two decades. No doubt there will be the usual cheap shots at foreign inmates, but the bulk of it will point out rightly that prisons are miserable places, filled with damaged individuals. Since most miscreants will be released again, we can only cut crime and costs to the public purse by addressing their educational and health needs.

Half have mental health problems while one quarter were in care as children. The Prime Minister, however, was stunned to discover the lack of data available to drive improved performance. Civil servants could not tell him which prison is even the best performer, let alone achieving good results in reducing recidivism or boosting qualifications. The system is so centralised almost 1,000 new instructions have been dictated from Whitehall in the past decade alone – which is 46,000 new pages of rules. These are so petty they even include how many sheets of music a prisoner can possess in his cell.

The government has already announced a much-needed prison rebuilding programme. As Gove told me on a visit to Wandsworth prison for a BBC Panorama programme I made last year, they want governors freed up to experiment and to bring in more providers of education. We also visited Texas together to see drug courts in action. These offer holistic support to tackle addiction and mental health problems with striking results; I met lethal gangsters, career criminals and crystal meth wrecks salvaged by this sensible system.

Now the Government plans to roll out huge expansion of such problem-solving courts, with their tough-but-tender approach to helping offenders sort out lives. This is good news. We need the Tories to break a political logjam that led England and Wales to have the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe – just as the cause found unlikely champions in Texan Republicans who sparked changed attitudes across the United States. With Jeremy Corbyn leading Labour, there is a chance for rare consensus across the political spectrum.

Fine words must be followed by resolute action to face down those fools who see prison as an end in itself. For all the shrill nonsense talked about prison working, it is too often an expensive and egregious failure. Simply stuffing troubled human beings behind bars is a sign of political weakness. As one key Texan senator told me, he realised there is nothing strong about locking people up; far harder to force people to confront their demons. To get really tough on crime, we have to help perpetrators back into society.

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