The Prisons and Courts Bill announced earlier this year marked a shift in the way the government views the role of prisons. Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss declared that the new bill (currently at the committee stage in the Commons) would enshrine into law that the main purpose of prisons was to rehabilitate offenders. Truss said: “Prison is about punishing people who have committed heinous crimes, but it should be a place where offenders are given the opportunity to turn their lives around.” Her comments and the proposed new bill have sparked criticism and media backlash, with calls that the government is going too soft on criminals.
The Bill comes at a time of great crisis behind the barbed wire walls of our penitentiaries, the prison population is on the rise, numbers of violent incidents have increased massively and staff shortages have over-stretched prison officers and damaged their morale. One way in which the government can tackle these issues is to reduce reoffending rates, the National Audit Office estimates that reoffending costs the economy between £9.5 and £13 billion annually, which explains the government’s new focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
Although prisons can play a key part in preparing inmates beyond incarceration, most still find it difficult to adjust to life outside prison walls. Reoffending rates show this, the Ministry of Justice reports that 44% of inmates are reconvicted within one year of release, for those serving sentences of less than one year this increases to 59%.
Life behind bars and wider society in general are radically different and as much as inmates can prepare for life outside, rehabilitation is no short term course and must continue after a their release. The fact that the reoffending rate within a year after release is so high shows how the first 12 months can be the most crucial. Institutions in wider society must therefore work collaboratively together to make sure released prisoners are given the best chance of becoming law-abiding citizens. Housing, jobs and in many cases integration into new social circles can be difficult given an individuals tainted past, prisoners especially will require support in these and many other key areas to give them the right base to build a life free from crime. Again this cannot fall on just a prison service that is already over-stretched, charities, housing groups, local businesses and drug services must work together to provide innovative schemes and initiatives to ensure a much smoother transition from incarceration to society.
Recently a number of such schemes have been resounding success. In Middlesbrough, a not-for-profit restaurant ‘The Fork in the Road’ has been opened offering a second chance to a number of including ex-offenders, the long-term unemployed and those in recovery from addiction. The venue was opened by philanthropist Andy Preston and offers opportunities for prisoners on day release basis, Mr Preston said: “The prisoners will be adhering to our high standards of quality and service and they know this can be the start of a brighter future for them.
“The prison system is full of people who want to go straight, but it’s easier said than done.
“The guys who work with us will have skills they can show to a potential employer.”
Prison Governor of HMP Kirklevington Grange (the local prison), Angie Petit said the experience would help inmates get ready for life outside prison: “Nothing beats the challenge and responsibility of working in a real-world business when it comes to preparing them for life outside of prison.”
At HMP Birmingham, charity Beating Time that set up a prison choirs has joined forces with the Institute of Directors West Midlands to launch a job scheme dubbed Business Beating Time. The initiative gets prison choirs to perform to potential employers, in their view businesses hoping to plug the Brexit skills gap should look no further than prison choirs for their future employees. Beating Time’s co-founder, Jane Evans, explained: “The idea is, if we can get 30 companies that have never employed ex-offenders before to employ ex-offenders, then the following year they bring a friend, so we have 60 people employing and then the following year it is 120.”
It was inspired by a US offender jobs programme called the ‘30-2-2 initiative’, which set out to get 30 employers from local community to hire a minimum of two former prisoners and track their job performance for two years. One thing incarceration offers prisoners is stability, once prisoners are released, uncertainty surrounding aspects of their lives such as accommodation and employment can lead them back to a life of crime, offering a stable job scheme can therefore help tackle recidivism. Only one in four people (27%) had a job to go to on release from prison and one in five employers (19%) said they excluded or were likely to exclude people with a criminal record from the recruitment process, it is clear that both prisons and wider society need to work together to address these issues.
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