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Prisons ‘need new ethos’ of therapy and skills

21 June 2013


THE small group that gathered in the basement of Mary Sumner House in Westminster, at the start of this month, to discuss a national philosophy for prisons should feel "really privileged to be here", the President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Professor Sue Bailey, said. "These things are always started with small numbers of people."

The National Prisons Philosophy Conference was organised by Bill Strettle, a former education guidance worker and counsellor at Strangeways Prison (Comment, 4 May 2012). He is campaigning for all prisoners to receive counselling or other therapeutic interventions.

The conference was held the day after the Offender Rehabilitation Bill was discussed at the Committee Stage in the House of Lords. The Bill will introduce a requirement that all prisoners serving a sentence of less than two years will be subject to a post-release rehabilitation period of one year. It will also open delivery of services for offenders in the community to a "diverse range of new rehabilitation-providers", who will be paid according to their success at reducing re-offending rates.

At the conference, Lord Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, spoke of his concerns about the Bill: he has warned peers that "people appear to be made to play second fiddle to the market, while the timing appears to be determined by the need to present tough achievements to the electorate in 2015."

The aim of prison must be, he said, "to help people live useful and law-abiding lives". Staff must explore the bars to this, considering education, employment skills, social skills, substance abuse, and mental and physical health.

He supported the conference because of the need for "an ethos that will guide what we do" - something currently lacking in prisons policy, he suggested.

Professor Bailey, who described her work with young "lifers" as "a huge luxury and a huge privilege", drew on her years of experience in prisons, children's homes, psychiatry, and neuroscience to suggest ways to create a more helpful culture in the criminal-justice system.

She described how new studies in neuroscience suggested that the brain was malleable up to the age of 30, giving hope that change was possible. She suggested that an appropriate sign in prisons should quote John Bowlby, a child psychiatrist, who wrote in 1965: "Changes for better or for worse are always possible. It is continuing potential for change that means that at no time is a person invulnerable to every possbile adversity, and at no time is a person impermable to favourable influence."

Jennifer Kay, National Student Officer at the Howard League for Penal Reform, explained her organisation's campaign to introduce "skilled work" in prison, including regular hours and a market-rate wage.

She argued that the Government should "direct spending away from responses to crime such as policing, courts, and the delivery of sentences; and towards community initiatives tackling the underlying causes of criminal behaviour".

She urged the Government: "Don't spend money building prisons - by then, it's too late. We need to invest in our schools, housing, and welfare system. The solutions to crime almost always lie outside the criminal-justice system.

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