A big issue: what should we do about Kenneth?

Any new government must deal with the UK's overflowing jails. Robert Verkaik meets a man whose story embodies the problem
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The Independent Online

Kenneth takes the key in his left hand, pushes it into the lock and limply wiggles it up and down. Sometimes locks can be tricky to open first time. We wait, for minutes. Finally the landlord saves the new tenant from his obvious embarrassment by retrieving the key and opening the door himself.

Kenneth Brown, 44, spent his childhood in and out of care and has lived just a few months of his adult life outside the walls of a prison. An opportunist burglar and career thief, he has visited almost every one of the 140 prisons in England and Wales. Kenneth has never owned a key.

Last week the number of people in prison in England and Wales reached a record high of 85,076. Since the mid-90s the prison population has doubled. It is expected to reach 96,000 by 2014.

Penal reformers argue that the inexorable rise in prisoners is unsustainable and has turned the criminal justice system into a revolving door of crime. New Labour has created 26,000 more prison places. The Conservatives pledged to add to this number and to abolish early release schemes. The Liberal Democrats want to halt the trend by abolishing six-month jail terms.

But there is one policy all three parties share agree on: the importance of investing in rehabilitation to tackle reoffending.

Over to Kenneth Brown. His behaviour has become so institutionalised that unless something radical happens, the second half of his life will follow the same course as the first.

On each occasion Kenneth has been released from prison, he promises himself he will never go back.

“When they let me out of the gates, I always say the same thing: It’s going to be different this time. I’m going to stay legal. I never want to go back.”

But the path to rehabilitation is rarely smooth. “They give me my £46 release money and a travel permit. And I sit there on the train to London, saying to myself I can’t go back. Then the trolley arrives and the bloke asks me whether I want anything.”

By the time the train pulls into the London terminus Kenneth’s good intentions are four sheets to the wind. Separated from a hefty chunk of his release money, Kenneth is usually fretting that his probation officer will smell alcohol on his breath only hours after winning his freedom.

“I know it’ll be bad if he smells alcohol on my breath, so I probably don’t bother turning up for the meeting.”

The probation service has little choice but to alert the police and, inevitably, Kenneth is recalled to prison for breaching his licence.

Even if he makes it to the probation office, resources are so stretched that there is little they can do to sort out his more pressing needs, including food and accommodation.

Kenneth usually ends up sleeping rough on the street or under a bridge. Within days he will have spent his £46 and drawn closer to nefarious means of survival. One way or another Kenneth ends up back in prison.

But today is different and he won’t have to worry about the temptations of the railway buffet trolley: he is being met at the prison gates by George Tanimowo, 42. George has driven from London to Wayland Prison in Thetford, Norfolk, where after signing the release papers he leads Kenneth to his car.

Kenneth says it is the first time anyone has taken an interest in his life outside prison. He is in good hands.

At Wayland Prison he is known by the name of “Tenacious George” on account of the time he turned up his in car in the middle of a snow blizzard to collect a prisoner due to be released.

“They said I was first the person to visit the prison that day and that they hadn’t been expecting anyone. At first I was told they couldn’t release him because the prison was in lockdown, but I told them I had come all the way from London and had had to dig myself out of the snowdrifts with a shovel. The man I had come to collect had been in prison for nine years and this was the day he was going to be released – I wasn’t going to let him down.”

George knows better than most how important it is to have someone on the outside keeping you on the straight and narrow.

George served a prison sentence for fraud involving the purchase of plane tickets for illegal immigrants. He was only convicted of playing a minor role in the scam but candidly admits he was stupid and says that the shock of prison helped him to turn his life around.

“My time in prison was the worst time of my life and I vowed that when I came out I would never let it happen again.”

George had already begun volunteer work with the St Giles Trust, a charity which specialises helping in the resettlement of offenders.

Today George has driven all the way to Wayland to ensure that Kenneth has a similar opportunity to turn his life around.

After a three-hour car journey George accompanies Kenneth to his probation office in Camberwell. It’s a meeting which Kenneth has struggled to make before.

And temptation is not far away. Outside the probation office, while George has gone to get his car, Kenneth is approached by a man who wants to sell him a very cheap Rolex watch.

He resists the advances of the man and tells George about the offer.

“I’m pleased he didn’t take the bait. For all he knows the man could have been an undercover policeman and Kenneth would have been straight back in prison.”

Instead George invests Kenneth’s release money in a mobile phone. Explains George “He has no way of getting hold of me if anything goes wrong. It’s very important that he can ring me in an emergency.” This proves not to be an easy task. Kenneth has never owned a phone and it takes a good hour to teach him how to use one.

If Kenneth is going to have any chance of staying out of prison he will need a place to live and money to buy food. The Department of Work and Pensions offers crisis loans to ex-offenders. But to make a successful application Kenneth needs to have a letter from his probation officer and one form of ID. All Kenneth owns are the clothes he stands up in (he bizarrely gave away his toiletries to another prisoner when he was being released).

To assist Kenneth to negotiate the bureaucracy of the benefits system George has enlisted Colin Lambert, another ex-con member of the Trust. Colin is an old hand at handling obstructive officials and interpreting the small print of benefit forms.

Says Colin, 45, who spent his younger years in borstal and then prison on petty theft and credit card fraud charges.

He has helped keep dozens of ex-offenders from returning to custody by ensuring that they stay in the system.

“It doesn’t matter how many promises you make to yourself that you won’t go back and it doesn’t matter how well prepared you are, coming out of a prison is the toughest time of an ex-offender’s life.”

He says: “There are hundreds of rules and you need to know them all otherwise you won’t get your money and your accommodation will fall through.”

The first rule that Kenneth learns is that there is no point in tramping down to the benefits office without some form of proof of ID.

“Have you got any ID Kenneth? Can you prove who you are?” asks Colin.

Kenneth goes through the motions of a half-hearted body search which confirms Colin’s suspicions.

“Right, the first thing we have to do is get down to the town hall to find your birth certificate,” says Colin. “There are things he must do and there are ways he must do it. For example there are ways to disclose previous convictions so that a potential employer isn’t put off giving you a job.”

Later Colin and George help Kenneth fill in all his forms and then wait with him in the benefit office for as long as it takes.

“You do need a lot of patience to do this work. But I like to think of ex-offenders like Kenneth as pinballs and we are the flippers whose job it is to bounce him back up when ever he falls back down.”

Robert Owen, chief executive of the London based St Giles Trust, knows that the value of the work done by Colin and George is measured in more than just personal terms. “The people we work with are some of the most disadvantaged in society. An independent study has shown that the prisoners we work with have a re-offending rate 40% lower than the national re-offending rate. Investment in this work carries far more value than what people get up to in the city.”

On this subject Mr Owen, a former merchant banker who had a road to Damascus experience in 2003, knows what he is talking about.

If the Trust and other groups like, which all work closely with the Probation Service, were given more funds it would be possible to offer every offender leaving prison a new lifeline. The potential savings for the economy are enormous.

The annual cost of convicting and keeping someone like Kenneth in prison each year is £126,000 and the estimated total annual cost of re-offending is £11 billion.

Labour and the Conservatives believe jailing more and more criminals is a necessary evil and are committed to building more and prisons.

All this is news to Kenneth who, even a few hours after his release, is unaware that Brtain is in the grip of the most exciting election for many years. How is Kenneth planning to use his vote? "Why would I vote. What has anybody done for me? What have politicians ever done for people like me?"

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, says:

“Prison clearly isn’t working to reduce re-offending. Nearly half of all offenders released from prison go on to commit further offences. Prison capacity is set to rise further to 96,000 places by 2014. This approach is economically and socially unsustainable. The evidence is clear that community penalties involving treatment for addicts, mental healthcare and sorting out housing and employment all work better than a short prison sentence.”

She adds: “As the general election approaches all political parties should pay attention to what works in justice policy, instead of throwing money away on an ever-growing and depressingly ineffective prison system.”

Tonight the first priority is to find Kenneth some form of safe accommodation. There is not enough time to organise anything permanent and Kenneth is scared of sharing a room with other male offenders. So George drives him to a bed and breakfast in Gypsy Hill, south London. The trust works with landlords who understand how important it is to offer stable accommodation to ex-offenders as soon as they come out of prison.

Inside the bed and breakfast the landlord leads Kenneth to a very basic room. There’s bed, a desk, a mirror and the natural light streams through into room through a small Velux window. But none of this disguises the fact that the room isn’t any bigger than the cell in which has spent the last two years.

“Yeah, it is about the same size,” says Kenneth, a beaming smile over his face as he surveys his new home. “But this time the key belongs to me.”

The Policies

Where the parties stand on prisons

Labour

Unashamed of its role in setting this record. The party says there are more criminals in prison not because crime is rising but because violent and serious offenders are going to prison for longer. Ministers have already promised to build five more super-prisons.

Labour is also committed to rehabilitation schemes and will increase the number of police officers and the probation service schemes to supervise frequent young offenders and vetted ex-prisoners, meeting them "at the gate" in the hope of stopping them slipping back into crime.

Conservatives

Would continue Labour's prison-building programme. But rehabilitation is at the heart of the Tories' criminal justice manifesto which promises to break the cycle of reoffending by giving those who have served their time a chance to play a positive role in society. To create "a rehabilitation revolution", a Conservative government would work with private and voluntary sectors to provide post-release support, paying them by results, with the savings made in the criminal justice system from lower crime.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats are the only party to offer a truly radical approach to reversing the trend in prisoner numbers. Liberal Democrats would not build more prisons, but would replace short prison sentences with rigorous community sentences. This policy is underpinned by the conclusion that, although prison sentences are getting longer, reoffending remains sky-high. The Liberal Democrats point out that Britain now spends 11 times more on locking up children than on projects to stop them sliding into crime in the first place. A Liberal Democrat government would establish a National Crime Reduction Agency to test properly what cuts crime and assess the best schemes for the rehabilitation of offenders.