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Massive overcrowding, high rates of re-offending, and an estate largely built for a Victorian-variety punishment and retribution. Not the most stable of foundations on which to build a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ or even the watered down proposal for working prisons. They're not new challenges either. But the responses are getting interesting!

I’m sure we all have our own idea about what prisons are for, usually falling within the trusty ideals of punishment, retribution or rehabilitation. Thankfully recent focus has been on the latter of these three. As our Chief Exec says "the government has been brave; there are few votes to be won when it comes to prison policy. Yet, it announced its rehabilitation revolution and, in its emphasis on work, recognised the futility of locking prisoners in their cells all day.”

But I find myself wondering what’s revolutionary about working prisons (which now seems to be the focus of the rehabilitation revolution)? For me, rehabilitation is about much more than being work ready, having work while in custody and able to find work on release. Rehabilitation is about transitioning to a new life with improved well-being, greater participation in society and the ability to access a wider range of resources that can help individuals meet their goals in life. For me, it smacks of the core principles of recovery that are about enabling a more positive and more reasoned debate around how to build the right public services and community support to meet the needs of individuals.

But this is a hard sell when it comes to prison. Prisons are rarely seen as a core public service by the public or policy makers alike. This has reduced the ability to have a reasoned public or policy debate about the role of prisons in providing people with a second chance through efficient and effective rehabilitation programmes, and by doing so keeping the wider public safe. It has led to emotional media driven responses to policy development that fit with political agendas (prison works…) and has arguably created the crisis we now find ourselves in: a prison population at its highest in history, a staggering re-offending rate and a fixation on the idea that work – any work - equals rehabilitation.

We published RSA Transitions yesterday which sets out an alternative model of a not-for-profit community prison that would provide custody and rehabilitation services on a single site. This vision has a strong work element to it but it goes much further to emphasise the importance of empowering service users and communities, supporting and building prisoners’ capabilities within a learning culture, maintaining strong family links and developing new robust networks through the gate with local employers and the wider community. It’s about opening up a range of opportunities to enable people to transition to a new life, helping them develop the skills and capabilities they will need to take advantage of these opportunities and by doing so reduce the likelihood of re-offending and keep communities safe.

As the RSA seeks to take this vision forward to a practical end, I would suggest that there is a lot to be learned from the development of the recovery field in driving a debate focussed on transformation, saving lives and healing communities. The reality is that ex-offenders are faced with a myriad of barriers to finding employment – some suggesting they are 13 times more likely to be unemployed than the general population.  And we’re hardly in a time when there are jobs-a-plenty.

So perhaps we should temper back the single-minded focus on work equalling rehabilitation and explore the broadest vision of rehabilitation – one that is perhaps akin to the vision of recovery?


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