Does Prison Work?

Public and government obsession with security is hampering a rational, open debate about prison policy, the former governor of Brixton Prison told a debate at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas last week.

I was never told I could be anything other than a criminal.

Charles Young

John Podmore told the Does Prison Work? debate at the Judge Business School on Friday that Britain was obsessed with securitisation. “It's a warm comfortable blanket that we immerse ourselves in,” he said.

He added that the media and government tended to treat all prisoners as homogenous. "They tend to see them all as Ian Huntley,” he said – when they were in fact a very diverse group.

Podmore was one of a number of speakers at the packed debate sponsored by policy research organisation RAND. They included academics and the head of a prison education programme.

Emma Durley of RAND told the audience that the UK now had 87,551 people in prison, higher than the rest of Europe, but nowhere near as high as US levels.

Crime had gone down, which might suggest a link between imprisonment and crime levels, she said, but when you looked at other countries such as Canada the correlation was not so simple. Whether prison worked was dependent on various factors. In terms of rehabilitation, for instance, the environment needed to be right and proper training needed to be provided to help people resettle into the community after being released.

In response to a question about community sentencing, she said that Finland had reduced the number of people it imprisoned over 40 years through promoting more use of community sentencing. What it had in its favour was a public that was not overly focused on punishment and the lack of a tabloid media.

Barak Ariel, a lecturer in the Police Executive Programme at the University of Cambridge, spoke about ways of keeping people out of prison by creating safer streets. His team is working on research projects with London Underground which has reduced crime by 350% by putting more police on platforms in crime hotspots at times when most crime occurs. He also spoke about a project targeting domestic violence through preventive policing. The idea is that police focus on hotspots for domestic violence at times when domestic violence is most likely to occur. They knock on the door of people with a history of domestic strife in an effort to prevent crime from happening.

Other projects he outlined were Turning Point which aimed to divert first time offenders from committing crime and a project aimed at targeting repeat offenders. He said targeting hotspots did not appear to displace crime to other areas, as many might suspect.

Charles Young, founder of the London Anti-Crime Education Service, spoke about his own experiences of being in prison and his education project aimed at deterring young people from being career criminals. “I was never told I could be anything other than a criminal,” he said.

John Podmore said that the problem with prisons was not keeping people in prison, but what happened when they came to be released.

That included helping them with jobs, stable relationships and somewhere to live. “Not a lot of resources are spent on this,” he said. “Very little is done to promote family relationships, for instance; quite the opposite.”

Finding jobs was difficult. Many prisoners were in prisons far from their home and had no access to the Internet to search for jobs before their release. Moreover, many prisoners were released into hostels which were worse than prisons.

Half the prison population was about to be released at any one time and they were unlikely to want to escape, said Podmore, yet most were kept in secure accommodation. Resources could better be spent on more open prisons or resettlement prisons.

The RSA's Transitions project with which he works was looking at what could make the transition from prison to freedom easier. The process at the moment could be fairly traumatic with high drug overdose figures and suicide rates equivalent to those of psychiatric prisons, said Podmore.

He added that there was a lot of incorrect information about prisons because the wrong things were being measured or were being measured in the wrong way. For instance, prisons' records on escapes looked very good until you realised that most prisoners escape while they are being transferred between prisons or to court.

These escapes are, however, not counted in the prison escape figures because the prisoners are then considered to be in the custody of the private firms like Group Four Security who are escorting them.

“As far as the prison service is concerned it was not them who lost the prisoners,” he said.

He revealed that when he was appointed governor of Brixton Prison only 2% of prisoners were apparently using drugs. Six months later he decided this could not be true and he reviewed the process by which testing was being carried out. The figures consequently rose massively, Podmore quipping that he then ran the risk of being fired for presiding over a huge increase in the number of drug users at his prison.

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