With our current prison system, Chris Grayling’s talk of ‘purposeful activity’ is meaningless

Too many prisons act like bad parents. Rather than doing anything productive with those in their care, it’s a lot less effort to simply plonk them in front of the TV to veg out.

Prisoner

Frances Crook is chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform

Too many prisons act like bad parents. Rather than doing anything productive with those in their care, it’s a lot less effort to simply plonk them in front of the TV to veg out.

This is obviously a little unfair and it isn’t the fault of those running the prisons that they have very limited time or resources for work, education or training. Indeed, if we are to apportion blame, it lies squarely at the feet of all governments over the past twenty years, who have seen fit, for largely political purposes, to systematically double the number of people behind bars.

With prisons like Wandsworth, Lincoln and Swansea each holding 70 per cent more people than they’re supposed to, any talk of what the Ministry of Justice calls ‘purposeful activity’ is somewhat laughable. The only real ‘purpose’ of such prisoner warehouses is to stick people in their cells all day and hope they don’t get up to too many ‘activities’. In such a climate, mind-numbing daytime TV or a gym where you can supervise large numbers of prisoners at once is a fairly useful way of keeping good order.

Turning lives around

The Howard League for Penal Reform has published numerous pieces of research looking at how custody can be a place where people who’ve lived troubled lives and often made terrible mistakes work to turn their lives around. We set up Barbed, a graphic design studio in Coldingley prison, as Britain’s first real business behind bars.

In our opinion, the able-bodied young men who tend to fill our prisons should work (at yes, minimum wage levels, so as not to undercut workers outside the prison walls), pay tax and give money to victims’ funds. In so doing, something more positive than punishment can start to happen in our gaols, helping victims to find justice through seeing perpetrators make amends for what they’ve done and begin to change their lives for the better.

For this to be possible, however, we need a return to exactly who prison is for: those presenting a serious physical danger to the public rather than people who have committed non-violent or low-level offences. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, not exactly a sandal-wearing ‘do-gooder’, puts it, “prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with people we’re just mad at”.

It seems somewhat perverse that, in the drive to prevent prisoners watching season three of The Inbetweeners (in DVD format, at least), so little of this debate has focused on why our politicians have spent decades grossly overfilling our prisons with people who would be better off on a community programme.

Not only are non-custodial sentences approximately ten times cheaper, but provide a rare example of a much more affordable solution being significantly more effective in terms of rehabilitation: having a 36 per cent reconviction rate within a year compared to 58 per cent for the short term prison sentences they should replace. They can also, through unpaid work, contribute positively to the improvement of whole neighbourhoods affected by someone’s offense.

A crueler system

By insisting that prisoners be punished for not engaging in work, training or educational activities that often do not and can not exist with the number of people we have behind bars, the justice secretary is injecting yet more cruelty into our revolving door prisons.

However, in his splashes on the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph front pages today, Chris Grayling has clearly achieved his political goals – and The Passion Of The Christ will be duly removed from prison libraries. The rest of us, however, will have to continue to suffer from grotesque levels of reoffending, exorbitant costs that lead to Sure Start centres closing so bloated prisons can stay open and an ongoing cycle of crime for victims and perpetrators alike.

Grayling has clearly achieved his political goals – and The Passion Of The Christ will be duly removed from prison libraries. The rest of us, however, will have to continue to suffer from grotesque levels of reoffending, exorbitant costs that lead to Sure Start centres closing so bloated prisons can stay open and an ongoing cycle of crime for victims and perpetrators alike.


3 Responses to “With our current prison system, Chris Grayling’s talk of ‘purposeful activity’ is meaningless”

  1. Drew

    More political, right wing vote grabbing rhetoric, along with the “unemployed, benefit and disabled benefit scroungers” headlines, which demonises people dependent on benefits to survive.

    Whilst unemployment is so high and there are many people under and un-employed. Putting pressure upon disabled, mentally ill and the long term unemployed, with no compassion or support is utterly cruel and taps into the sick aspects of human nature.

    This type of “propaganda” allows many to go along with despicable treatment of vulnerable people, just because the state and the media are seen to condone it.

    It’s one thing being under 25, over 40, a woman or from an ethnic minority and finding it tough to find work. It’s even worse if you have an illness, disability or a criminal record.

    Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels would recognise this propaganda as their own modus operandi if they were here to see it.

    Categorising poverty as something that could happen to any of us is where left & right diverge.
    People end up in prison for all sorts of reasons, even MP’s and Tycoons.
    People end up in prison for all sorts of reASON

  2. jonah stiffhausen

    The best way of impeding the encroaching state is to insist on juries in all courtrooms and alert them to the theme of jury nullification. The state imprisons people randomly now on all manner of trumped up charges because it gratifies the wicked power urges of our dreadfull rulers and provides business for its flunkeys

  3. jonah stiffhausen

    The best way of impeding the encroaching state is to insist on juries in all courtrooms and alert them to the theme of jury nullification. The state imprisons people randomly now on all manner of trumped up charges because it gratifies the wicked power urges of our dreadfull rulers and provides business for its flunkeys

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