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June 27, 2006

"Prison works - in removing the risk from society, and in enforcing remorse and reflection - it's just what happens after prison that doesn't work": prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham explains why

Posted by Emily Kingham

Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham explains why in her experience non-custodial sentences don't work.

The Government's use of alternatives to custodial sentences, i.e., tagging, probation and community orders, which often involve little more than signing in at an office once a week, is provoking much anxiety in recent press reports and op ed pieces.

My experience tells me that non-custodial sentences don't work because they don't remove offenders from the environments in which they offend. Instead, they put them right back into the danger zone. Unless there is a therapeutic element introduced to their supervision, these offenders will strike again because they are not being made to look at their behaviour or understand its consequences. As for the question of punishment, it is rendered meaningless; it is seen as more of an inconvenience, less as an opportunity to wonder why they have been deprived of their liberty.

The shock involved in entry to prison is, if you like, the equivalent of an alcoholic's "rock bottom". From that point on, there is only one way to go: some level of enlightenment is inevitable. The problems begin when they are back on the street and the impulses that got them into prison are triggered again. Enlightenment goes out of the window.

Prison works all right - in removing the risk from society, and in enforcing remorse and reflection - it's just what happens after prison that doesn't work. Prisoners don't get the support they have been receiving in prison. And these are very needy people. They need help with housing, finances, employment, relationships, addiction to drugs and alcohol. Instead of this, they meet with a probation officer once a week who talks about the risk they present to the public (needless to say, they don't see themselves in this light), asks them perfunctorily how they are (in London, there are 780 probation officers to 60,000 offenders), and off they go again. They are back on the streets, surrounded by their peers, pubs, drink and drugs.

When prisoners are released on tag, they are overjoyed because they only see the "release" bit of the equation. Though they are initially mindful of the restrictions imposed on their movements, they are nevertheless, "gate happy". That exhilaration is given no release. They are all dressed up with nowhere to go. Frustration sets in. They are usually recalled to prison for flouting their curfew (7pm to 7am) or using drugs.

It is clear to me at least that the policy-makers from the National Offender Management Scheme do not understand the people they are trying to manage. It is unrealistic to expect young men to behave with the maturity you or I would employ. Patience and a willingness to deprive ourselves of instant gratification are the qualities we would bring to being tagged. Patience and forebearance are not qualities associated with this group of young men.

The 2003/4 British Crime Survey identified those who are most at risk of being victims of violent crimes as follows: young men; unemployed people; single people; single parents; those living in areas categorised as having a high level of disorder; and private renters. Exactly the kind of people who end up in prison. The high-profile murders of high-profile victims committed by offenders on licence are not representative of the kinds of crimes being committed by this group. The dark fog of hysteria that clings to the notion of paedophiles running amok in playgrounds obfuscates what is really going on.

If we acknowledge the implications of the following statistic, then we can begin to consider who we are dealing with: 50% of the UK adult male workforce has a criminal record.

No wonder the Conservatives are planning on building more prisons. In my woolly, Utopian, pinko, liberal way, I can't help seeing these structures as holding pens for men who are deeply damaged by their own upbringings. The burgeoning growth in the counselling and psychotherapeutic communities is in large part a response to middle-class angst and anxiety. But it is the young, unemployed, single, private renters living in areas categorised as having a high level of disorder, who need their services.

Prisons should be looking at getting therapists in to deal with these damaged people. What we have at the moment is programmes in anger management, programmes in addiction and something called Enhanced Thinking Skills. These are not enough because they do not treat their participants as individuals with an individual's particular history of family breakdown and that individual's need to talk his way out of pain. These men are crying out for attention and they do it through violence, theft and drug abuse. Men are not encouraged to wear their hearts on their sleeves. This is the price we pay for that repression.

The only way some of these men can express joy (at being released, for example, albeit on tag) is by larging it up at the pub with the help of some chemical stimulants. The only way they can express fear or disappointment (housing falling through, a job not being found) is through anger. Electronic tags will only tell us that the person we have tagged is deeply troubled; a danger to himself and others.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.


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