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Opinion: Reimagine prisons as places of possibility

15 September 2023

Headlines are made when an inmate escapes — but it is vital to rethink the purpose of incarceration, says David Kirk Beedon

THE escape last week of Daniel Khalife from HM Prison Wandsworth has led some commentators to link the flight of the terrorism suspect to the parlous state of our Prison Service. His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, stated that many of the problems at Wandsworth were mainly related to staff shortages. A predecessor of Mr Taylor, Nick Hardwick, argued that Mr Khalife’s escape was symptomatic of wider problems in the service.

Other than when incidents such as an escape heighten concerns about public safety, most people generally treat prisons with the attitude “out of sight, out of mind.” But the interest in prisons provoked by the temporary escape of Mr Khalife presents an opportunity to reflect not so much on the failings that caused it, but about the overarching purpose of incarceration.

In Marked for Life: A prison chaplain’s story (Orbis Books 2019), Nancy Sehested, a former US prison chaplain, writes: “We were the people who designed and created these places of punishment. We can reimagine them into becoming places of promise and possibility.”

Dare we reimagine the system of mass incarceration which we have designed into the fabric of our national life? I have deliberately used “we” to highlight the responsibility that we all share for the state of our prisons. Mass incarceration is a modern response to the social problem of crime. As a social malaise, crime affects us all, as does the success or failure of our collective response to its perpetrators.

DURING more than a decade of speaking publicly, researching, and writing about prisons (as well as working in them for most of this time), I have found that arguments for the reform of incarcerated life are most persuasive if they approach the problem from three angles: pragmatically, morally, and theologically.

Pragmatically speaking, the current prison system in England and Wales simply is not working. Whether incarceration is designed to be a deterrent to crime or a rehabilitative opportunity (or some combination of both), it is a costly failure. At present, almost half of those who are released from prison (the proportion is higher in the youth justice system) reoffend within a year. This is costly, both financially and socially. It is estimated that the cost of incarcerating each person is about £45,000 per annum. The current prison population in England and Wales stands at approximately 87,000 people, and is increasing. This creates a huge accommodation bill for taxpayers to fund.

HM Chief Inspector of PrisonsA cell in HM Prison Wandsworth, printed in the Report on an independent review of progress at HMP Wandsworth (2022)

More than 99 per cent of these incarcerated people will, at some point, be released back into society: only 80 or so people are in for actual life. Mental ill-health and illicit drugs are prevalent and related issues in prison life. Violence, self-harm, and suicide are also at worrying levels. The failings of the current system mean that many men and women leave custody neither rehabilitated nor healthier, but more drug-dependent, angry, violent, and/or mentally unwell.

Subsequently, there will be a social cost to pay. Underfunding prisons is a dangerous false economy, which ignores the inevitable nature of the social problem of crime, “Pay now or pay later.” Failure to invest at realistic levels in rehabilitative practices and programmes wastes money, funding a tragic revolving-door system.

THE current form of mass incarceration is also morally dubious. We have long been one of the most punitive nations in Western Europe. Punishment is disproportionately meted out to people of colour and from the poorest sections of society. A significant number of those in custody have pre-existing physical or mental-health issues, have suffered domestic violence or sexual abuse, have been “looked-after” children, and have addiction problems.

Acknowledging this neither excuses criminality nor mitigates the harm inflicted on others by crime. Nor should it ignore the fact that some people do pose a serious threat to society or national security, and must be incarcerated for as long as this remains true.

A reimagining of incarceration, however, requires that those who desire a more transformative and less punitive approach to crime should have due regard to the pre-custodial landscape of incarcerated souls. An empathetic regard to these aspects of their lived experience is not only transformative but also realistic about the psycho-emotional and contextual challenges faced by those seeking to make the transition into law-abiding paths.

Tansformative work of this kind does not come cheap, and it is demanding. But it is made worth while and achievable if it is sustained by the theological or philosophical belief that every human being possesses an intrinsic dignity to be respected, whatever their actions. We are all more than our worst deeds, and worthy of the sort of compassionate regard that God displayed in Christ.

More than 100 years ago, in a speech to Parliament, Winston Churchill, as Home Secretary, said: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.” Perhaps, if we were able to harness this current interest in prisons and engage it in responsible reflection on the purpose of imprisonment, we might rehabilitate a little of our own humanity as a nation.

The Revd Dr David Kirk Beedon is an author and researcher in penal pastoral practice and a former prison chaplain. His book Pastoral Care for the Incarcerated: Hope deferred, humanity diminished was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2022.

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