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July 10, 2006

It's not what prisoners learn in prison, it's what they have learnt outside it that's the problem, argues prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham

Posted by Emily Kingham

If the recidivism of ex-prisoners is to be tackled, better ways of reintegrating them into society - and finding them work - will have to be found, argues prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham.

On the outside, prisoners' lives are dominated by drugs: taking them, selling them, fighting over them. Their relationships are chaotic: I have met one nineteen year-old boy expecting two babies, one in August, one in December. I keep seeing these men being recalled to prison a few weeks after having been released on licence.

I have written before that most newly released prisoners go off the rails as soon as they leave prison because the structure that kept them in place while they were here has disappeared. Prison infantilises men unless therapy and resettlement work is undertaken. They need to learn how to live in the community, without acting like children in a sweet shop. Except it's drugs and alcohol they binge on, not sweets.

"Prison brings out the best in me", one man told me. When he is here, he inhabits a drug-free wing; he mentors other prisoners with low literacy rates; he is an obliging, courteous, "model" prisoner. He feels useful, and that makes him feel good about himself. Once he is released he goes straight back to the environment that triggered his offending behaviour in the first place.

The prison service is doing its best to deal with these troubled and troubling individuals. But Tony Blair's knee-jerk policies responding to a hysterical press are liable to create more chaos on our streets. In terms of protecting the public and reducing the risk of re-offending, custodial sentences work while they last.

It's what happens, or more accurately, what doesn't happen after the sentence is served that doesn't work. It's no use sending an offender back on to the streets and expecting him to behave himself because he has a wire round his ankle. The work drug-rehab workers do in prison needs to be continued outside it. At no point in their sentence are prisoners consulted as to how they should plan their sentence or their release structure. We need to listen to them.

I recently wrote about the need for psychotherapists to be employed wholesale in prisons. Resettlement, the task of preparing prisoners for the return into the community, is an equally crucial stage of rehabilitation. If you ask prisoners what they need to stop offending they will tell you: a job, housing, stronger family ties.

Most young men who come to prison don't know how to lay a table for dinner. A course entitled Fathers Inside has to teach them that some families actually sit down together at meal times.

For a lot of the men I work with, it is their families who are at the root of their problems. These are the men who need so much support that halfway homes are the only way forward with them. And yet they are sent back to where they came from, and everything they learnt inside goes out of the window. It's obvious that they come back to prison because there's nowhere else for them to go.

Prisons employ privately run agencies to deal with offenders on the point of release. It is a shame that the government hasn't got there first. The work these agencies undertake is an attempt to address society's fundamental flaws. It is their task to help men find employment, housing and support in the larger community. Needless to say, employers will not give recidivists a chance. And yet, as I reported previously - and I was surprised that no one picked up on this: 50% of the adult male workforce has a criminal record. This tells me at least that employers are employing offenders without realising it - except they're employing them without the safeguards that ex-offenders who own up to their crimes bring with them.

Offenders who attend resettlement courses are taught how to disclose their crimes and how to prove that they have addressed their behaviour. On release they come with an army of references backed up by counsellors and mentors who will attest to that individual's rehabilitation. Most candidates who apply for a job can massage the facts on their CV, and the person they have selected as a referee is legally obliged not to give them a bad reference. How do employers know what their candidate's problems are and how their Human Resources department will cope? Offenders come with a record not just of their offences but how they have addressed issues they have involving alcohol, drugs and anger.

Prison trains offenders in computer skills, health and safety, manual handling, and diversity. Young men from dysfunctional families need to be socialised. As far as team skills go, prisoners have to get on with other prisoners. They live in the closest proximity to each other. Compromise is key on the wings they learn that quickly.

I work with men whose emotional literacy skills are astonishingly high, even if their literacy skills are astonishingly low. These are men, who on entering prison, have had everything taken away from them, they are left with just themselves. So respect for their fellow man is crucial. In short, they have learnt their people skills the hard way. And yet employers are still reluctant to take what they perceive to be too great a risk.

Very few prisoners are convicted for theft from employers. There are not more because employers would rather sack those who steal from them than prosecute them. They do not prosecute them because they do not want to expose their own systems as not working. In such cases, employers pose a risk to other employers.

In order to stop offenders posing a risk to the public, we have to employ them. In order to employ them, the government has to supply structures that contain them on release. It is not enough to train men to behave themselves inside prison. It's outside prison that's the problem.

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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I work in an enviroment that deals with peoples with disabilities. I have a client who spent 17 years in prison although this was 17 years ago I am finding society is not willing to take this client back into the community. This client has changed his life and is trying 110% I have found it very hard to find this client a home and employment I am working on this very hard. I just hope that the prison system adapts programs to help these prisoners thats being released more so that now.

Posted by: Sharon at July 22, 2006 05:23 AM

I believe it is society that forces a man to go to such extent that finally he ends in a prison. Now that when he is released, he should be accepted by the society and given another chance to live his life morally, but a little negligence on their(society) part can again turn him immoral, so...................infact prison system should adapt programs to help these prisoners that are being released more so that now.

Posted by: Nick Wilson at July 24, 2006 08:08 AM
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