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"Let's unlock the potential of the people we lock up" by Jasper Gerard, The Observer

2nd September 2007

'They can shove their offer up their arse.' So concluded one local union leader addressing striking prison officers, who cheered wildly at this Prescottian flourish. And then it struck me: how surprised should we be that prisoners, entrusted to the care of such people, so manifestly fail to reform while inside?

Are key-jangling jailers models of the ethical, upstanding citizens we would wish the fallen to emulate? Or should we mark the strike by posing a question: is leaving prisons in the hands of 'screws', well, nuts?

With apologies to Michael Howard, prison doesn't work: more than half of the people we lock up reoffend within two years, and those are just the ones we catch. However, letting them off, as the former Home Secretary would point out, hardly works either: the average offender commits 140 crimes in the year before he is caught. Moreover, psychologists contend that some - psychopaths, say - are untreatable: so they need to be kept out of circulation, perhaps for longer. And they will need no-nonsense jailers, who might indeed think £8 an hour isn't great for sharing work space with folk with 'hate' tattooed on their knuckles.

But what of the rest? Thirty-seven per cent of prisoners are functionally illiterate, more than half are addicts, and 72 per cent are mentally disturbed. Only 10 per cent of jailed addicts have access to treatment; 60 per cent of inmates can't undertake courses inside. If our primary aim with all except genuine lifers is to change future behaviour, why are we still not tackling 'the causes of crime'?

Ignore, if you will, de Tocqueville's rebuke that the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its prisoners; just make the hard-headed calculation: 'How am I most likely to avoid being knifed?' Releasing criminals in the condition in which they were captured - just a bit battle hardened after scrapes in the communal showers - is a non-solution.

We should flog off Victorian prisons. Many are in city centres and developers would salivate. I've just been invited to stay in an old nick, not at the pleasure of Her Majesty but of a swish hotel chain that converted it. With the proceeds we could build specialist units further out. While prisoners are locked up we have the chance to unlock their potential.

This need not be soft: education and treatment could be compulsory. Ditto work: in a pilot scheme in Reading only 7 per cent of non-violent prisoners sent to work in a building yard reoffended.

Intriguingly, the public is shifting. A poll shows most people want ministers to find alternatives to prison.

Home Secretaries from Howard to Blunkett have competed to threaten the most bloodcurdling punishments, yet most experts suggest this has proved no more of a deterrent than old Pierrepoint's noose. Will politicians ride the mood and risk tabloid wrath? Nick Clegg has some fine ideas, David Davis liberalish moments, but Jack Straw has been uncharacteristically quiet, while David Cameron has gone back to boasting how he was part of Howard's Home Office gang, Mike and the Moronics.

The liberal approach is unproven. But if we retreat into thinking we will solve crime by banging nasty people up without trying to reform them, the law will, alas, continue to look an ass.


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