The justice system is reasonably straightforward - you commit a crime, and you do the time.
Yet, post-incarceration, individuals typically find themselves back at square one. With 75% of leavers reoffending within nine years of imprisonment, there is certainly more to be done to support ex-prisoners in starting again.
First and foremost, the problem starts from within. Experts say that rehabilitation is a vital tool in reducing reoffending rates and promoting reintegration into society. Educational and employment skill-building programs should be integral to the system; however, this year’s Daniel Khalife escape has highlighted the worrying impact of under-resourcing and funding of British prisons. In a 2020 report released by OFSTED, 44% of prisons required improvement, while a whopping 16% were deemed inadequate.
England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe, and even so, an estimated 20,000 prisoners are contained in overcrowded conditions, with 53% spending over 22 hours inside their cells – rising to 69% during weekends. This is unsurprising as thousands of experienced prison officers have quit due to overwhelming workload and rising insecurity in the workplace. A 2021 Ministry of Justice report stated that “staffing shortfalls were preventing the prison from running a decent and predictable regime”, referring to the notorious Wandsworth prison.
Inevitably, inmates are then often deprived of effective, purposeful activities designed to increase employment opportunities for life after prison. A 2022 report by the House of Commons Committee acknowledged the long decline and appalling state of prison education, disallowing ex-prisoners to climb the ladder of opportunity. While there has been some improvement since April 2022, as 19% of prison leavers find work within six weeks versus 15%, an alarming 96% of prisons still did not meet their employment-on-release targets this year.
Perhaps the UK ought to follow alternative dynamics to address the structural challenges the system is currently undergoing. The Dutch system, for example, prioritises prisoner re-socialisation through a multi-point crime assessment scale that ranges from full responsibility to zero. Defendants’ mental health and mitigating factors (e.g., depression, addiction, or personality disorders) are reviewed, and they may be directed to specialised clinics for targeted treatment instead. This unique strategy demonstrates a successful blend of punishment and rehabilitation while supporting fragile individuals.
Similarly, Norway has redefined prisons as rehabilitation facilities. Small, community-based, open spaces have replaced ordinary jail cells. Additionally, to reinforce the significance of social support, inmates are often placed closer to families. With a strong emphasis on education, vocational training, and comprehensive support services, Norway boasts one of the world's lowest recidivism rates at just 25% after five years.
Nonetheless, support measures for life after prison in the UK also fall short. Upon release, approximately one-third of leavers do not have accommodation and are given a scarce £50 grant for temporary accommodation. Due to stigma and inadequate guidance, they can struggle to rent privately, particularly as Universal Credit housing benefits can oftentimes take up to nine weeks for payment. Local authorities do not class prison leavers as ‘priority need’ on the basis that they have intentionally made themselves homeless on account of their behaviour, a victim-blaming argument appealing to our government’s increased neoliberal values.
CRISIS UK reports that it is commonplace to re-commit crime as a means to avoid homelessness and its difficulties. Homeless ex-inmates are highly vulnerable to falling back into past lives as they are more likely to be exposed to substance misuse and negative influences, while their lack of address prevents them from employment or even opening a bank account. For many, their overwhelming desire to resettle is defeated by the vicious cycle of homelessness. Earlier this year, the Community Accommodation Service scheme was announced to provide up to 12,000 prisoners in England and Wales temporary accommodation for 12 weeks – a baby step in the right direction.
Whatever the solutions may be, the British state is significantly failing its prison population. After all, don’t they also deserve to ‘go straight’ from square one?
Written by Dunya Simões
The views and opinions presented in this article belong to Dunya Simões — not TEDxWarwick.
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