5 October 2010 Prison isn’t working

Two cheers for Ken Clarke. He’s the best available minister for justice. He thinks – before he’s read the Mail, rather than after.
He is interested evidence and what works. So, two cheers for his interest in making prisons places of work, rather than institutionalised indolence.
But will his proposals to get prisoners involved in doing useful work, for the minimum wage, enabling them to save, and to pay recompense to their families and victims address the scale of the problem?
The Howard League for Penal Reform is enthusiastic. ‘This could be the biggest change to the prison system in 200 years,’ says the Howard League.
‘Bringing real work into prisons is the most important reform to the prison system in two centuries,’ comments Frances Crook, its splendid director. The Howard League says paid work, and paying tax is ‘the best way to support victims, families and for the first time, be asked to contribute to the common good. We must get prisoners to take responsibility for their actions and work is the best way to achieve this.’
And she believes, ‘everyone will gain from this new policy. It will enable prisoners (overwhelmingly men) to contribute to families so that we could reduce the benefits bill and this will help to keep families together. It could reduce prison costs as prisoners can pay for the luxuries just like the rest of us have to. ‘
The Prison Reform Trust agrees, ‘Real work for real wages makes sense. This would be a sea change for prisons where currently few work opportunities exist and those in work earn an average ‘wage’ of 8 pounds a week.’

This is a coherent case. But we should also be wary; the PRT is concerned that this will be ‘exploitative menial work.’
Centre for Crime and Justice Studies director Richard Garside also cautions, ‘My suspicion is that this is more about turning prisoners into an exploitable resource and balancing the Ministry of Justice books than it is about introducing greater purpose and justice.’

Waged work won’t apply to the majority of people introduced to the prison system. Around 110,000 people are received into prison every year, two thirds of them are sentenced to 12 months, and, in effect, serve 2 months, then they won’t be available for work or anything else.
Prisons are becalmed by idleness and in-cell televisions, which induce a soporific effect, if they’re switched on half the night. Tired prisoners are malleable, dulled.
Nor does paid labour address the catastrophic under-education of the prison population – the average reading age is estimated to be between nine and eleven.
Access to education among all but ‘juveniles’ is haphazard and increasingly work-oriented. Education must be the best route to employability, but prisons seeking to make cuts are likely to shred their education service and focus on security.
Waged work won’t, however, address the massive problem of mental ill health in prisons.
It won’t deal with the crisis of women in prison. Most shouldn’t be there. The Prison Reform Trust has championed a new network of women’s centres where women live in the community, take responsibility for themselves and their families, gain skills, get out of debt, break addictions and get the support they need.

The women’s centres are instructive: they focus on how women get tangled in the prison system as women.
No justice minister has yet grasped that the criminal justice system is fundamentally about men, as men.
We are to go on locking up thousands of young men at vast expense. A year spend in prison is equivalent to a year at Eton. So lets treat prison as a resource – where young men could go to get real rehab.

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