'Harsh' prisons attacked: Home Office research suggests tougher jails do not work. Mary Braid reports

CRITICS of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, yesterday challenged him to produce evidence that austere prison regimes deter inmates from reoffending.

That may be difficult. The Government's own research suggests harsher conditions do not reduce reconviction rates. Lord Whitelaw was the last home secretary to get tough on criminals when he introduced 'short, sharp, shock' youth detention centres in the early Eighties. Leon Brittan, his successor, since knighted, suffered the embarrassment of a Home Office evaluation that showed the centres did nothing to discourage prisoners from further offences.

In fact, most studies suggest that a more progressive approach, combining education and training with practical help for release, is the best way to ensure that once outside, people stay there.

'The short, sharp, shock was a brief but disgraceful phase of British penal history,' said Andrew Rutherford, chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform yesterday, as the row over Mr Howard's leaked plans for less 'lax' prisons raged.

'Michael Howard's comments are a terrible disappointment. They threaten the consensus on penal reform built up since the Woolf report in 1991 which advocated civilising prisons and accepted that removal of liberty is the real punishment.

'It appears Mr Howard hasn't had time . . . to read up on penal history or visit many prisons.'

Mark Williams, Home Office principal psychologist in regimes, research and development, said that the success of liberal regimes such as that established at Barlinnie Special Unit was hard to assess because it involved a few selected prisoners. But evidence was gathering that the nature of prison regimes did affect reconviction rates. Canadian studies proved work and education programmes could cut reoffending rates. Apex Trust and National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders surveys also show that prisoners released with a job and home to go to are less likely to return to jail.

Mr Williams said: 'In the Sixties, when the optimism about treatment regimes was at its height, people were disappointed by the results and so they became discredited. Now that we realise they are not a cure-all, we can see they do produce results.'

He said the debate about austere and soft regimes was sterile. One problem with 'short, sharp, shock' was deciding what constituted austerity. Some young offenders liked marching.

Yesterday Judge Stephen Tumim, Chief Inspector of Prisons, remained diplomatically silent about Mr Howard's comments. But colleagues wondered if the minister had read the judge's scathing reports on the squalid conditions in many prisons.

Last year, the judge called for a coherent prison system that would take into account the length of a prisoner's sentence, the need to maintain his links with family and friends and the skills he would need to fit back into society.

By that model, marching around a square would only be appropriate if prisoners intended to join the Army.

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