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Let’s be honest; the idea of a prison holding 1500 individuals who have committed a range of crimes being built in your community is not the most appealing. So when I switched onto the news last night and learnt that Dagenham was on the verge of protest against a proposed new private prison it didn’t come as a shock. And when a journo asks a woman on the street randomly “would you be happy with your kids playing in the garden with a prison next door?” you’re hardly astounded by the response “no way. We don’t want it anywhere near us, it’s not safe” (nb: not verbatim!).

My personal view is that the outrage should be about the fact that these huge prisons are still being planned. We should be reducing the prison population, not providing the space to increase it.

But if they’re going to happen then we need to make the best of it and that means having prisons that not only keep communities safe, but also cater to a range of community needs. I wonder how residents in Dagenham would feel if they knew more about prisons, how they operated and actually visited one. Fran and I were always keen on setting up a ‘Visit a Prison’ scheme but felt it was a little beyond the scope of the PLN – perhaps the relevant government departments (Schools? Community? MoJ? Home Office?) should have a go.

We know that when presented with objective factual information the general public are far less punitive and have fewer objections to the incentive schemes or variety of programmes that operate in prisons. Imagine if more were able to see first-hand how they work rather than rely on the media to provide information which is focussed primarily on the negative and sensational. The news stories about the Dagenham dispute, for example keeps mentioning the possibility of prisoners escaping.

“No prison is escape-proof”.

I don’t mean to dismiss this, but come on. Arguably, people in prison are people who just happen to have been caught. Does that make them anymore dangerous than those on the streets, on the bus or tube, in the café round the corner or living down your road who may have also committed a crime – just one they haven’t been caught for?


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