Jail where inmates pay rent and carry their own keys

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JOHN MORGAN, a seasoned prison officer, carries the scars of his profession: a stab wound, a burn, a broken jaw. 'I'm not here as one of your do-good liberals. I'm here because I've seen that the old system doesn't work. It hasn't ever worked. This has to be the prison for the Nineties.'

He is standing inside the perimeter fence of Latchmere House, Britain's pioneering resettlement jail. Screened by trees in the grounds of what was once a country house used by the security services, it sits on the edge of Richmond Park, south-west London. Here inmates go out to work for a living, pay income tax, go home for weekends, have keys to their cell doors, and pay towards the costs of their incarceration.

It is not an open prison housing low-risk white-collar criminals. It takes long-serving serious offenders towards the end of their sentences with the aim of reintegrating them into the outside world. Only those convicted of sex crimes are prohibited.

Notorious prisoners being given the opportunity to earn up to pounds 10,000 a year will undoubtedly upset many victims of crime. It will certainly stick in the craw of the 'hang 'em and flog 'em' contingent at the Conservative Party conference, who will be waiting today to hear Michael Howard announce an end to such privileges.

But Latchmere has earned the praise and recognition of previous Home Office ministers, Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and reform groups, and yesterday there was widespread concern that any crackdown should not affect the jail's rehabilitative work.

Latchmere starts with the premise that if you send a prisoner back into the world without money, without work and without a settled home, he will return to his criminal ways and sooner or later end up back inside, having left a few more victims in his wake. Research has shown that reoffending rates are as high as 80 per cent for some institutions.

Instead, Latchmere carefully selects prisoners serving sentences of five years or more who are within two years of their release and concentrates on preparing them for life outside institutions. Latchmere's reputation has spread within the prison system and many of Britain's 13,000 long-term prisoners seek to be transferred there. For every 15 who apply, only one will be taken after careful screening.

Of the 151 inmates, 48 have full-time work. The rest do community work. Prisoners can earn between pounds 40 and pounds 100 a week, out of which they have to contribute towards their keep and save at least pounds 20 a week, so that they are not destitute when they leave. How they spend the rest is up to them - handling money is a skill they have to relearn. But pay is offset against benefit payments to their families.

As they get nearer the end of their sentences, they qualify for home leave at weekends. The reason is to avoid family breakdown. Partners and children can find it hard to adjust to having a relative stranger back in the house.

To those who say the regime is too soft, Sean O'Neill, the governor, says: 'This is not an easy option. Here they have to take responsibility for their lives. They have to work hard for at least 40 hours a week. Instead of being a drain, they pay tax. They have to make decisions, and one of the hardest is to decide to return to the jail every night.'

The benefits to the Prison Service are many. Latchmere has no assaults, no escapes and few lapses of discipline. The numbers of 'failures', those who do not return, amount to a handful a year, and are sent straight back into the normal prison system. It costs the taxpayer pounds 287 a week per prisoner, far less than the average pounds 450.

The results of research into the Latchmere House regime will not be known until next year, but early indications are that recidivism will be lower than in conventional jails. Pat, 41, a fraudster, won't make a promise his whole life might suggest he cannot keep. 'What I will say is that Latchmere has given me the confidence to go out and try.'

Mr Morgan said: 'I am proud to be part of what is happening at Latchmere. We are turning out better people instead of better criminals - and that has got to be good for the victims.'

(Photograph omitted)