Noel ‘Razor’ Smith has a total of 58 criminal convictions and is thought to have committed over 200 armed robberies. He was first imprisoned at age 16 and spent almost all of the next 34 years in various prisons, never succeeding in ‘going straight’ on his brief sojourns when he wasn’t detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, which never lasted more than a few months. Yet since 2010 he has been out, building a new life for himself away from his criminal past.
Sounds like the United Kingdom’s penal system actually worked, doesn’t it? Well, yes and no. It is a sad indictment of our prisons that it took the best part of 34 years for Smith to turn his life around, but the story of how he did so is remarkable. While being kept in solitary confinement (having assaulted a prison guard) the prison chaplain started bringing him books to read. Having had a patchy school career he wasn’t a proficient reader to begin with but over time began to read more and more. This then led to him starting writing and entering a prison short story competition, coming second. He carried on writing, eventually having his autobiography published in two volumes and a number of articles printed in the Guardian and New Statesman. And thus he has been rehabilitated – but never would have been were it not for those first books which the chaplain brought him.
Which is why we should all be concerned by a Prison Reform Trust report which highlighted that crippling staffing cuts (there are now 23 per cent fewer prison officers than there were in March 2010) should give us real cause to worry. What this means in practice is that staff have to focus on keeping order, not on supporting prisoners to spend their time engaged in meaningful, rehabilitative activities. This, combined with the ludicrous diktat from Chris Grayling that families should not be able to bring their prisoner relatives books points to an increasingly punitive, and less effective, penal system at work
Sadly, it is just a symptom of the fact that the British justice system has traditionally always been intended to be rehabilitative but then failed because politicians bow to populist retributive pressure (and let’s face it, even Labour governments do not have a great track record when it comes to rehabilitation).
Victorian prisons were designed to be places of redemption – if you visit a Victorian jail you will find that all cell windows face either north or south, so that the cell’s inhabitant received a consistent amount of sunlight each day. The aim was a first step towards treating the prisoner as a human being capable of reform, yet completely undermined by the bullying behaviour of the prison guards and wardens. It is a consistent theme in penal policy – we say that prisons should be a place for change and yet, the reoffending rate in this country is currently 47.2 per cent – meaning that nearly half of all prisoners go on to commit further crime. Under the Tory government this is on the increase, proving, to contradict a previous Tory home secretary, that prison is not working.
The evidence is there to show that prisoners who are given alternatives, whether those be meaningful work, education or even just the preservation of family ties (which of course, the banning of gifts from relatives also undermines) are far less likely to reoffend. We need to create a new penal policy based on rehabilitation, not retribution. The latter might seem popular, but surely nothing is more popular than actually being successful in cutting crime?
Maeve McCormack is a councillor in the London borough of Camden. She tweets @McCormackMaeve
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