• Inside

    Mid Devon Advertiser
    12 February 2016

    There are no prisons in our constituency although there are some close to our borders. I have visited Dartmoor (Princetown) and Channings Wood (Denbury) and once led a debate in parliament on prison reform. I also held meetings for MPs and Peers to discuss the rehabilitation work carried out locally. Much of this rehabilitation is impressive but the more time I spent looking into crime and its punishment the more firmly I came to believe that our criminal justice system isn’t working – that for society, the victims of crime, the taxpayer and prisoners themselves incarceration too often fails us all. That is not to say that many don’t deserve prison – only 7% of those convicted for the first time end up behind bars and those there overwhelmingly deserve to be so. But of those who are jailed 46% will reoffend within a year of release at great cost to their victims and £13 billion to the taxpayer. In terms of what happens in prison there is simply not enough effective rehabilitation. 50% of those behind bars enter and leave prison with a lower level of literacy than children achieve at primary school and there are too many cases of men and women entering prisons drug free only to leave with a serious addiction. Our prison governors have become overburdened with regulation – there are no less than 46,000 pages of guidance. Does it really need a man in Whitehall to dictate how many sheets of music a prisoner may have in his cell (12 by the way) or the number of jigsaw puzzles for that matter? And there are overly tight regulations on how the money spent in prisons is used and who can supply them with services. So, I strongly welcomed the recent announcement by the Prime Minister that we are going to start to create new prisons based on the academy schools model so effectively championed by Michael Gove. Focusing on skills and education, governors will have greater discretion over how prisons are run – the rehabilitation pursued. There will be far greater transparency regarding prison performance. Which are the top performing prisons in the UK for lowering re-offending rates? I have no idea – because this information is simply not collected. Well, we will start to collect it and the good practice that leads to lower reoffending will be better identified and promoted. The use of satellite tagging could be extended – not as the norm – many deserve to be locked up for a long time. But for some short-term female prisoners with babies currently with them behind bars perhaps? In short we need a radical overhaul of our prisons – so that they work for society, victims and the yes for those prisoners who themselves should be shown that a decent society wills them a way out. It was Dostoyevsky who once said that "the degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.” He was  right - let’s hope that we can now do better.