30 August 2019

Rehabilitation should be at the heart of our prison system


On Saturday, I, along with thousands of others will descend on Mudchute Park and Farm for the third cross-party Big Tent Ideas Festival. I’ll be there alongside colleagues from all political parties, think tanks, businesses, charities, interest groups and many more.

I am particularly excited to be talking about one of my passions – prison reform, alongside some great organisations that are already making a difference to prisoners’ lives like Forward Assist, Tempus Novo and The Bridge of Hope.

Whilst I was recovering from a brain tumour in 2012, I spent time writing a book, Doing Time: Prisons in the 21’st Century, which explores how we can reform prisons using my 15 years-worth of first-hand experience as a criminal barrister and my experiences working in our prisons up and down the country. As our new Prime Minister Boris Johnson said recently, we need to stop our jails becoming “factories for making bad people worse”.

What is the purpose of prison? I believe it is possible to take away liberty and punish an individual, but also to use that time for rehabilitation and reform. Improving educational opportunities, tackling drug addiction and helping offenders back into employment should be at the heart of any prison.

Prison should act as a punishment and it does. But the wider consequences are the loss of any legitimate job and regular access to family. Prisoners lose their partners, children lose their parents, and families can often lose their financial security, including their home.

I am delighted that the government is taking action. Earlier this month, new plans were announced for a £100m investment in beefed up security to stop weapons and drugs getting into our prisons.

Prison can work. But if our prisons are such a deterrent, why is it that 62% of adults who serve prison sentences of less than 12 months go on to reoffend?

There are three practical areas of reform that we should focus on: education, drugs and employment.

Having the most basic skills such as being able to read and write may seem like second nature, but the sad reality was that very few of my clients were able to give meaningful written instructions – too often they could simply not read and write.

Our prisons should be about changing people for the better, so that when their sentences are over, prisoners reintegrate back into society and don’t reoffend. That’s why education should be a fundamental part of prison life. Every prisoner should leave jail with improved literacy and numeracy skills. Currently, whilst prisons offer a range of education and skills training, it is not mandatory for the prisoner to participate. In 2018, of 82,000 inmates, just 100 were studying AS-level or above qualifications. We know that the incentive of early release motivates those who are in jail to behave. So, we should use pilot projects to look at whether a successful education can be used as a trigger or incentive to early release.

Another area where we urgently need reform is tackling the problems of drugs. Whilst we need to take a zero-tolerance approach to drugs in prisons, we should be asking ourselves the question – how did they get there in the first place?

As our Prime Minister discovered on a recent visit to Leeds Prison, drugs can make their way into prisons in all sorts of ways – even in ingested Kinder Eggs.

We need much stronger action to get drugs out of our prisons. I want to see the effects on a prison where everybody, from the governor to any visiting relatives should be scanned, and if necessary, physically searched before being allowed into a prison.

But whilst cutting off the supply of drugs is important, reducing the demand is vital too. The best and most effective way is through drug treatment, because the strongest motivation to become drug free will always come from prisoners themselves. So again, I would establish pilot programmes where the completion of drug treatment programmes would be integral to the release of those convicted of drug abuse sentences.

Finally, employment. One of the biggest issues ex-prisoners face is gaining access to employment. Perhaps that is understandable. Every employer needs to be able to trust their staff. However, that doesn’t mean that those who have been convicted of a criminal offence don’t deserve a second chance.

On a job application form, many employers ask a simple question. ‘Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offence?’ Those who answer ‘Yes’ are often filtered out at the beginning of the application process. That makes it harder for ex-prisoners to get a job, makes it harder for them to integrate back into society, and thus increases the chances that the will reoffend significantly.

That’s why I wholeheartedly support the campaign to ‘Ban the Box’. That means employers can consider the conviction at a later stage, once they’ve had an opportunity to meet with and understand the applicants’ character. Some of Britain’s top companies are leading the way on employing ex-offenders – but many more need to play their part. Timpson employ more than 1,200 ex-offenders, including some who are still serving their sentence and are able to work under day release schemes.

The government is leading the way too, ‘banning the box’ on civil service recruitment so applicants need not declare criminal convictions at the initial recruitment stage, apart from when applying for jobs with specific security requirements.  However, many more of our employers need to get involved and help ex-offenders back into work.

So, whether you agree with me or not, come and debate and discuss new ideas for the next generation of British politics at the Big Tent Ideas Festival this Saturday.

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Guy Opperman is the Conservative MP for Hexham