Deborah Orr: Our prisons are underfunded, understaffed and overpopulated

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The Independent Online

One of the most damaging aspects of the implosion of the Home Office is the political spin that is being put on the endless revelations of sheer, unadulterated, endemic, incompetence. The latest debate has been occasioned by a report from Andrew Bridges, the chief inspector of probation. It describes an incompetent service unable to provide staff even to supervise community service. The report is already being used to call into question the worth of community sentencing altogether. The truth is that it merely proves what we know already: that underfunded, understaffed, badly organised and poorly managed systems don't work.

Of course the headlines are dominated by the deeply upsetting consequences of mistakes that have allowed criminals out on to the streets to maim and kill. But that's what they always are - mistakes. Even the most ardent of liberal prison reformers agree that the one rock-solid reason for keeping a person under lock and key is to protect the public from danger. But what prison reformers find worrying as well is that there are far more mistakes that put people inside who shouldn't be than the other way round. The vast expansion of women in prison for non-violent crimes under Labour is testament to the fact that many people who are in jail do not need to be.

It is easy for the writers of headlines to imply that the community sentences involving the making of carnival costumes - to quote one example - are being handed down to rapists and murderers. The truth is, of course, that such activity is much better for offenders with children than, say, fining them because they are in debt and then jailing them for not paying their fines.

I've sat in a prison with a bunch of young women separated from their children and facing up to 20 years for being drugs mules. In prison, they were making Christmas cards for their families. The idea that a community sentence spent making carnival costumes would be inappropriate for them is very far from the truth. Prison is expensive, and when children are involved, the expense is passed on to another troubled generation. Sensible and well-managed interventions can turn lives around far more cheaply and humanely than prison sentences.

Also, while it is disgraceful that people sentenced to community service are not followed up when they fail to show up for it, this is not a consequence of ideological misguidedness. It is simply the result of a long-standing and well-documented crisis in staff recruitment and retention. If anything, theoretically at least, the trend under Labour has been to toughen up the mechanisms whereby the breaking of conditions leads to jail.

It's what Asbos are all about, for example, and what often happens when offenders are given drug treatment and testing orders that are laughably inadequate. Zahid Mubarek, for example, was under a harsh regime whereby his use of heroin after a drug treatment order for shoplifting £6 worth of razors and snapping a car aerial led first to a six-month prison sentence and then, tragically, to his murder by a racist cell-mate. His death was another tragic symptom of a criminal justice system on its knees. But the idea that a six-month sentence to a young offenders' institution for such a petty crime was ever going to have a positive outcome of any sort was mad in the first place.

Yet our overflowing jails teem with people on remand or completing short sentences that achieve nothing except the further disruption of their already disrupted lives, when what they really need is proper treatment for their mental health problems.

The most distressing thing about the reign of New Labour is that it has gradually adopted progressive policies in such a piecemeal, illogical and half-hearted fashion that it has inextricably linked them to an impression of chaos, failure and tragedy that is the result of sheer cock-up rather than any political ideal. In criminal justice, Blair could have scored a wonderful success. Instead he has consigned wise ideas to the wilderness for a good while to come.

* John Reid's reign at the Home Office is already assured of one success (though at least his health reforms attest that he's a man who can move projects forward). He has most definitely lifted the phrase "not fit for purpose" out of the dispiriting realm of bureaucratic jargon and coy legalese and into the lively community of the national vernacular.

How lovely that stuff can now stop being "crap" and start being "not fit for purpose". Congratulations, Doctor, are already in order, on this small matter at least.

Spoils of love and war

Two rulings were greeted as divorce settlement landmarks this week. Julia McFarlane, married for 16 years to the father of her three children, was given £275,000 a year for life. Melissa Miller, left, married for two and a half years and childless, was awarded a one-off payment of £5m.

Clearly, few male commentators had been listening to David Cameron when he explained this week that money wasn't everything. The two settlements unleashed a torrent of misogynistic abuse. One man suggested that Mr Miller "would have been better off hiring a call girl. At least he'd have known the price in advance." Another warned that "young men developing careers and businesses will not bother to get wed at all because the risk of being taken to the cleaners is just too great".

Then Heather Martin-Dye stepped forward, divorced after 16 years to a BA pilot who used to be her lodger, and ordered to sell her house to give him a 43 per cent share of their joint assets, more than four-fifths of which were hers initially. She is not happy with the terms of her divorce. But at least her case shows that marriage is about sharing, not as Mr Miller claims, about treating men like "murderers".

How the mighty have fallen to the touts

I think it's safe to say that this year's Chelsea Flower Show has added more to the gaiety of the nation than ever before. Famously bristling with drought-busting plants, proudly the possessor of a newly minted private water supply, the great celebration of the nation's love of gardening survived, of course, under downpour conditions all week. Sloane Square, the nearest Tube station to the show, even managed to flood quite independently, when water from a stream that was covered and diverted in its construction sluiced out all over the place and made it temporarily unusable.

That was very far from being the only surprise at the Tube station this week. Clearly the image of Chelsea has changed in recent years, more than I'd previously grasped, because when I tripped out of Sloane Square myself, I was assailed by ticket touts in much they same way as I might expect to at a Strokes concert. "Flower show tickets - buy or sell - any spare tickets, love, any spare tickets," they demanded urgently. In the end I felt oddly compelled to explain that I was terribly sorry but I was only going to the hairdressers.

Thrilled by my discovery that Chelsea was now as big a marketing proposition as anything else in the social calendar, I shared my views on the changing face of Chelsea with my friend around the corner.

"Huh," she said, "I thought that too so I went a couple of years ago. Everywhere I went in my fetching bohemian outfit, posh old ladies would gather into tight little groups and start whispering about 'standards', 'riff-raff' and 'being careful with your bags'." In the face of flooded Tube stations bedecked with tree ferns, and flogging inflated tickets to much too keen gardeners, I found myself rather relieved by the soothing balm of learning that some things, at least, haven't changed.

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