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We should celebrate the re-defining of prisons

    Yesterday Justice Secretary Liz Truss put forward the Prisons and Courts Bill which the government’s website described as “paving the way for the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation”. The bill includes policies to end the practice of abuse victims being questioned by their attackers in court, creates 2,000 new senior positions in prisons, and improves the accessibility and efficiency of prisons, but the headline pulled out by most news organisations is the move to define, for the first time, the purpose of prisons as more than simply punishing prisoners and protecting the public. It will enshrine into law that the key purpose of prison is to “refer and rehabilitate offenders, [and] prepare prisoners for life outside prisons”.

    This matters because recidivism rates – the number of people who re-offend within a year of being cautioned, convicted, or released from prison– has barely changed since 2004, fluctuating between 25% and 27%. The most recent figures from the ONS for the year from April 2014 to March 2015 show the overall reoffending rate was 25.3% with juvenile offenders a shockingly high 37.9%. That means roughly 121,000 offenders committed a crime within 12 months and the figures show on average these offenders committed not one, but 3.23 crimes within that year. It’s little wonder our prison system is seemingly overwhelmed when we have such a consistent sub-section of offenders re-entering the system time after time and prison appears to be having little deterrent effect.

    Polling by YouGov conducted late last year showed that public opinion is finely balanced when it comes to the main purpose of prisons, 29% of people think punishment should be the aim vs 28% opting for rehabilitation, so it makes sense to suggest that prisons can exist to do both.

    Rehabilitation efforts in prisons are not new, a wide range of schemes exist across our prison system which seek to transform the lives of prisoners by offering them the chance to gain qualifications – from GCSEs to degrees – as well as practical skills that could help secure them employment post-release. Businesses such as Timpsons and Halfords work directly with offenders in prisons, offering vocational training, and in Timpsons’ case offer a guaranteed job interview upon release. Timpsons also works directly with local housing associations to ensure offenders have support when they leave prison. They estimate of the offenders they hire, 80% are still with them after six months with a proportion of the rest finding alternative employment.

    The new bill gives no details on what form rehabilitation might take – and I would prefer that the Justice Secretary left it up to individual prison governors to develop schemes tailored to suit their inmates – but I do hope the issue of prisoner voting is included in the discussions. I realise the majority of public opinion is against me but I believe some prisoners should be allowed, indeed encouraged, to take part in our electoral process. 50% of the public believe removing the right to vote is a “useful way to publish [offenders]” surely removing the opportunity to engage with democratic processes just increases a prisoner’s sense of detachment from society? As a balance between the vast majority who favour a ban on prisoner voting and the minority like me who think voting rights should not be denied, I would support voting rights for prisoners whose expected release date is before the subsequent election e.g. a prisoner due for release in 2017 would have been able to vote in the 2015 General Election.

    Labour have criticised the bill as “an inadequate response to a serious situation”. I don’t think anyone is suggesting a renewed focus on rehabilitation will completely erase the rising number of incidences of self-harm, suicide, and violence in Britain’s prisons but a commitment, enshrined in law, to use people’s time in prison to try and rehabilitate them, gain skills and confidence to enable them to leave the path their life was on and become more productive members of society, can only be a good thing.

    Emma joined the Centre for Policy Studies in January 2017 and is responsible for promoting our publications and events. Prior to joining the CPS, Emma worked as a Development Officer with a not-for-profit social care organisation.

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