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A rethink of the point of custody

10 June 2016

Sentencing is the key to unlocking the prison crisis, argues Martin Wright


“THE overwhelming number of people . . . in custody are people who have either had mental-health problems, or been brought up in families that required the support of the State.”

Recent statements from the Jstice Secretary, Michael Gove, show an encouraging change in tone from previous hard-line rhetoric. The Queen’s Speech last month made welcome promises, although most of them contained hidden “buts”.

Prison governors will be given greater autonomy, but swingeing staff cuts since 2010 drastically limit what they can do, unless the prison population is cut significantly. The scandalous lack of “purposeful activity” can only aggravate the growing use of “legal highs”, violence, and even radicalisation.

A few old prisons will be upgraded, and some certainly need it; a prisoner in the relatively modern Coldingley reports that there are 12 lavatories and eight showers for 90 inmates, and only 15 minutes from unlocking to the time they have to be at work. When locked up, they have to ring the bell if they need the lavatory, and can have to wait five hours through the night for a response — or use the window.

Better mental-health provision is promised in the criminal-justice system, which is also welcome; but for many, the NHS would be more appropriate.

The Government will “continue to work to bring communities together and strengthen society”, and the little-known National Citizen Service will provide adventure, skills, and social action for teenagers in school holidays; initiatives of this kind, rather than penal institutions, offer the best hope of promoting acceptable behaviour.


CREDIT is due for asking Dame Sally Coates to review prison education. She rightly says that a prison-wide vision of education should be at the heart of the system, engaging all staff, especially for the many prisoners with learning difficulties and disabilities.

Smarter use of communications technology makes sense; but because of acute staff shortages, the temptation must be resisted to use this as a short cut to replace the personal contact that we all need, and prisoners more than most. Already, supervision in the community is being relegated to electronic tags. There is even talk of requiring offenders on probation or parole to check in by impersonal automatons similar to supermarket checkouts.

Education, training, and therapy are more difficult and costly to provide in prisons than in the community; sessions are constantly cancelled for lack of staff to escort prisoners to them. It is widely accepted that short prison sentences do more harm than good, and aggravate the deprivation that Mr Gove has recognised.

The way forward would not be part-time prisons, as has been suggested, but to revive an idea from the 1970s and ’80s: day centres for people on probation or parole. The idea was taken up in the United States and Canada; they called them day reporting centres, which sounds tougher.

They can provide a base for education and training, combined with support when needed, but without the damaging side effects of prison. They could also be local centres, organising restorative justice. Safeguards would be needed to avoid “widening the net” of criminal justice by using them when less restrictive measures would be sufficient.

WE NEED a fundamental rethink of what sentencing is for. Mr Gove says that he does not want to change the sentencing regime “in an artificial way”; politicians claim to leave sentencing to judges, but judges follow the laws made by politicians and their rhetoric.

The basis should be to repay no one evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12.7, 21); to say not “You have broken the law, so we will punish you,” but “You have caused harm; so you should (as far as possible) put it right.”

The first response, then, would be to make reparation (including restorative justice where appropriate). The second would seek to reduce reoffending, and, better still, to reduce first-time entry into the system, for which day centres would have a central part to play.

Third, custody would be used only for the most serious offences, and to enforce community measures when necessary.

Last, there is a purpose that tends to trump the others: to symbolise the seriousness of the offence. At present, this is commonly expressed as a number of months or years in prison, bearing no relation to the time required to achieve the other aims.

This purpose could be achieved by requiring a person to attend a day centre for as long as necessary for treatment or training, but then to report regularly for a period proportionate to the offence. For those who insist on punishment, this restriction of liberty would constantly show the public and the offender how serious the offence was, but without prison’s destructive side effects on the offender (and the family, if any).

A coherent policy begins with social justice. Offenders should make reparation and be enabled, normally in the community, not to offend again. Only then can prisons work effectively with the most serious offenders.

Details obviously need to be worked out, and objections met; as Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC and the criminologist Professor Seán McConville have proposed, it is time for a new Royal Commission on the penal system to re-examine the fundamental principles.

Dr Martin Wright is co-editor of Civilising Criminal Justice (Waterside Press, 2013), and a former director of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

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