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At the end of last week the RSA published the report on its Prison Learning Network. Despite there being plenty of news coverage for prison related issues - including the Conservative debate about prison ships – we have had very little take up in the national media. Is this because the report isn’t saying anything interesting, or just that it is hard to get coverage for moderate, constructive ideas? You judge….    

Can you name the European countries that boasts the following projects? The first is a prison restaurant, opened last year, where inmates cook and serve dishes such as paupiette of chicken with spinach mousseline, using organic ingredients direct from the garden. The restaurant offers prisoners the opportunity to gain skills and catering qualifications and encourages employers to take on ex-offenders.

The second is a prison radio station that recently won a prestigious broadcasting award even though its audience is limited to 800 inmates. Programmes are pre-recorded and edited by civilians who run the station. As well as shows covering religion and music, the station broadcasts interviews between prisoners and a regular slot where the governor responds to questions. The aim is to improve communication within the prison and increase the chances of inmates getting a job when they leave by building skills in broadcasting and in information and communication technology.                 

These initiatives are not in Norway or the Netherlands, nations with reputations for welfare-led approaches to criminal justice. The Clink restaurant is in HMP High Down in West Sussex and Electric Radio in London’s Brixton Prison. They are just two of many examples of innovation taking place within the UK prison system. It is this work that the RSA set out to explore through its Prison Learning Network, led by Professor Malcolm Grant, Provost at University College London. 

There is consensus that this work in prisons is important in reducing the number of people who re-offend when they leave. The Conservative Party has emphasised the role of work and education in custody as central to its proposed ‘rehabilitation revolution’. The government has recognised learning and skills provision as fundamental to achieving its target for reducing reoffending. Indeed there has been in recent years significant improvements, particularly in relation to young offenders. Spending on prison education and training has risen in recent years to over £150 million in 2007/8. This is very welcome but is dwarfed by the staggering £11 billion that reoffending by ex-prisoners is estimated to cost us each year. But this has been progress by stealth, as good news gets drowned out by a more strident, negative narrative on prisons dominated by exposes of overcrowding and, alternatively, poor or ‘luxury’ conditions. 

This conversation, the one we tend to hear on our airwaves, is like a domestic row between warring parents – the egalitarian father and the authoritarian mother – whose children have gone off the rails. As each blames the other for their offspring’s transgressions, for being too harsh or too soft, the children either sneak out of the house or struggle to do their homework. The egalitarian position at its purest believes that accepting that prisons should be the ‘school of last resort’ is a form of defeat; while the authoritarian believes only in punitive measures whether they ‘work’ or not.

Without better understanding of what takes place inside prisons and stronger evidence on what works to reduce crime, the public remains either suspicious or fatalistic, without the basis to support one policy or another. A shift in the quality of the public conversation occurs only when we see prisons not just as a way of punishing criminals and assuaging victims but as a vital public service that can benefit us all.  Politicians may differ in emphasis, but their core script about public service modernisation is likely to have common features: the role of technology, the need for services to focus on outcomes, the importance of engaging service providers and users to design new solutions.

It turns out that this is exactly what is needed to transform the effectiveness of prisons. Take technology, high tech security innovations are already being used: the UK is likely soon to see its first keyless prison. A similar transformation of technological infrastructure needs to be applied in relation to offenders learning and skills if we are to maximise the chance of prisoners securing work on release.

The prison system should also take a more strategic approach to user engagement. Recent work by User Voice, a charity run by ex-offenders, shows that many governors recognise that prisoner engagement is a priority. Prisoners want prisons to work, and they usually know what needs to happen inside to help them avoid reoffending outside. From the design of prisons to the content of training and employment programmes, prisoners, like all service users, have the best insights into  how services can be modelled to achieve the outcomes we all want. Prisoner engagement is an education in itself, requiring constructive engagement from to people who, if they weren’t truanting, generally spent their school years sitting at the back of the class .

Prisons must also follow the lead of other public service institutions, like schools or Sure Start centres, seeking to mobilise what former Downing Street advisor David Halpern has described as ‘the hidden wealth of nations’. This is the willingness of all of us to play our part in strengthening the social fabric; taking responsibility for our behaviour, volunteering, caring, or in the case of prisoners, giving people a second or third chance in life. Greater community and business engagement with prisons serves to remind the public that rehabilitation is not within the power of any one institution and underlines the social benefits of making offenders more employable.

My liberal friends won’t like me to say it, but prisons work. They keep off the streets people who would otherwise be committing offences. Albeit at huge public cost, the expansion in places has probably played its part in the fall in crime. But that doesn’t mean this is all prisons can or should do. Tomorrow’s prison should be a modern, intelligent institution, one in which prisoners can learn not just the error of their ways, but the skills and the self respect they need to start a new life.


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