The California license plate is iconic. Its simplistic yet light design has become synonymous with Hollywood and the good life. What if I told you that these metal plates start their life in a very different setting? That setting is Folsom State Prison. This is just one of the many prison work schemes that exist – in the UK many low-risk prisoners even work off the prison premises. Initiatives also exist allowing prisoners to receive qualifications, such as GCSEs or even degrees from the Open University. The education and experience prisoners receive are invaluable in helping them reintegrate into society upon release, reducing high reoffense rates. Could these programmes be the rose-coloured glass to prison overpopulation? Yet there are obvious concerns to this; do prisoners deserve this additional funding? Do these schemes really reduce recidivism? And are they achievable goals given the current state of debate?
Programme equity refers to the unequal distribution of education and employment programmes for the incarcerated within a jurisdiction. The United States suffers from this the most. The U.S. has the world’s highest prison population, with a statistic of 639 per 100,000 placing them well above the number two, El Salvador – “the deadliest place on earth”. Consequently, the U.S. simply doesn’t have the physical space to provide work and education schemes for these programmes to be universal. Though these programmes are often key to reducing recidivism and thus reducing crime in society, a majority of prisons in the U.S. cannot provide the room or funding for it. This raises an important question: is it fair to invest in these programmes in prisons that do have room? Could this become the prisoners’ postcode lottery? To link back to the UK, despite being on a smaller scale, our situation is the same. If it is not possible for all prisoners to get the “Gordon behind bars” approach, then why should the lucky few get this luxury? Is this fair?
Norway has been lauded for its prison system, emphasising both rehabilitation and education in its approach. Yet, Norway spent $129,222 USD per prisoner in 2018. In contrast, the average Deloitte Business Analyst salary in the U.S. is $91,142. British society has many problems, including a severe social care funding deficit, underfunded schools, and an 18% absolute poverty rate. So, is it really fair to fund initiatives for criminals, individuals who contribute negatively to society, whilst law-abiding citizens are suffering? At least those in prison have three meals a day and a bed to sleep in. In 2019/20 the UK spent £44,640 on each prisoner. There is an argument that surely there are better things to be spending our already low government revenue on.
Yet there are caveats to this. An emphasis on rehabilitation could allow for earlier releases. Norway has a maximum sentence of 21 years – and if prisoners are released earlier, it could actually be cheaper. Let’s explore a hypothetical situation. Individual A is 20 years old, sentenced to life in the UK and died at age 81; whilst individual B is also 20 and sentenced to 21 years in Norway for the same crime. Presuming an exchange rate of 1 USD to 0.75 GBP as is today, the Norwegian would cost their government just over £2 million (£2,035,246.50), whilst the Brit would cost our government £2,723,040. Thus, the UK’s approach could be seen as more expensive, while the Norwegian may also be rehabilitated and integrated back into society (arguably a much more moral approach).
A CHARITABLE APPROACH:
A way around this dilemma might be to make these initiatives charitable. A notable example of this might be the Bard Prison Initiative. Bard College, a high ranked liberal arts college in upstate New York awards A.A. and B.A. degrees to inmates at six New York State prisons. Bard faculty enter the prisoners and teach inmates as part of a programme funded by donors. Bard Prison Initiative has been the subject of an award-winning documentary “College Behind Bars”, the Bard debating team even beat Harvard (yes, Harvard) in a highly covered debate. All fingers point at this initiative being a success.
However, this programme relies on the generosity of the general public. Is the general public honestly kind enough and able to fund programmes like this nationally, or indeed globally? This further advances the previous point about equity – why do the prisoners in these six New York State prisoners deserve this programme over prisoners in neighbouring Connecticut?
A BUSINESS-CENTRIC APPROACH:
Employment is the other aspect of this article. Allowing inmates to work could provide them with key skills allowing them to compete in an utterly merciless job market that discriminates against former prisoners. This could be both through in-house schemes like with the California license plates, or outside. Timpson, one of Britain’s most recognisable high street stores, allows inmates from low-risk correctional facilities to work at their stores, returning to prison after their shift. Upon release, most stay at the company and some are in company leadership positions. The Timpson Foundation states that approximately 10% of their entire workforce is made up of ex-convicts. A couple of years ago, CEO James Timpson and an ex-convict employee gave a lecture at my high school and I struggled to keep the tears in – they explained how everyone deserves a second chance and that ex-offenders are often hard workers and talented workers. This programme is not just applaudable, it is inspirational.
A business-centric approach, like that of Timpson, seems like a no-brainer. It allows private businesses to take advantage of a dedicated workforce whilst helping to increase opportunity for those both in jail, and those struggling as ex-cons.
EFFECTIVENESS AND CONCLUSIONS:
Criminologist Grant Duwe argues that there are four major risk factors causing recidivism: a history of antisocial behaviour, antisocial personality patterns, criminal thinking and antisocial peers. Duwe identifies education as a “moderate risk factor” and that large reductions in recidivism are rather optimistic and unachievable. Yet, Duwe goes on to argue that the merits of programmes often outweigh the risks.
Regardless, it remains clear that the debate about education and work schemes in prisons needs to be expanded. Despite hurdles, it needs to be debated, it needs to be discussed, and it needs to be considered because these programmes work.
Written by Oliver Ind
The views and opinions presented in this article belong to Oliver Ind — not TEDxWarwick.
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