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Generally in this blog I have avoided complaining about the impact of austerity. I largely accept the inevitability of the overall scale of cuts. I find the third sector’s favourite sport of semi-competitive shroud waving not only unedifying but counter-productive. In more and more places and services, the cuts really are impacting now but the public has, I fear, become jaded by years of hearing stories of doom and alarm. Indeed some sectors have managed to cope pretty well. In heritage, for example, local cuts have actually been accompanied by an aggregate growth of activity as organisations have been forced to be more innovative and entrepreneurial.

But for some reason when I read about what is happening in our prisons my capacity for a measured response disappears. I’ll try to explain why that is, but first the evidence of our prison crisis. There is more detail to be found here, here and here but in essence the picture is this: prisoner numbers are up, overcrowding is up, self-harm and violence are up, the number of failing prisons is up, while the number of prison officers is down, along with educational, therapeutic or rehabilitative programmes. For more and more prisoners – many of them serving short sentences for non-violent offences – their sentence means being locked up in a small shared cell all day, only to be let out briefly into a violent and dangerous prison environment.

So far public opinion remains unmoved. The minister, unsurprisingly, says there is no crisis. The opposition, equally unsurprisingly, thinks there are many more vote winning examples of austerity to highlight - leaving the Observer and the Guardian to rail against, well, what we all expect bleeding heart liberals to rail against. Penal reform organisations like the Howard League do their best but they were complaining about prisons being inhumane and counter-productive even before the cuts impacted.

This is part of what makes me so despairing about what our prisons have become. In our work over several years the RSA has walked a difficult and sometimes rather lonely line arguing that prison can work, but only if we take education, personal development and rehabilitation seriously. Our impressive Transitions project (which is in urgent need of funds) has explored in great depth and in very practical terms with prisoners, prison officers, and a wide variety of local stakeholders in the Humber region what a rounded human capital approach to rehabilitation - starting on day one of a sentence - could mean.

Whilst I won’t blame the cuts on Coalition indifference, in the case of prisons there seems to be an abdication of all responsibility. In particular, there has been no attempt to stem the flow of prisoners into prison. It seems ministers would rather tolerate rising prison death rates, the collapse of meaningful rehabilitation and the ever present risk of riot than face hostile tabloid headlines if they called for fewer custodial sentences. Yet when it comes to public safety, surely releasing prisoners who have been traumatised and brutalised by prison is a greater threat than giving a few more non-violent offenders community sentences?

The author’s statement that "you can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners" may sound like a cliché but it is one on we should reflect right now. Prisoners have been judged for their crimes but their punishment should be a loss of freedom not hopelessness, fear and squalor. On Dostoyevsky’s criterion it is ourselves we should be judging harshly.


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