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Leading Article: The prison that sends inmates out to work

MANY prisons look empty because their inmates are locked in their cells. Latchmere House in Richmond is empty by day because most of its 150-odd prisoners are out at work, much of it full-time. To some people that will seem a contradiction in terms, and there are fears that the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, may pander to them when he addresses the Conservative Party conference today.

Since Latchmere House and the two other resettlement prisons have been in operation only since 1991, there is no statistical evidence yet of their effectiveness in reducing the reoffending rate. But both logic and initial findings suggest that long-term prisoners who have been in such a half-way prison are less likely to reoffend than those sent out with only social security to keep them afloat and in a more or less institutionalised state.

As serious (but non-sexual) offenders, some Latchmere House prisoners have been in the system for 10 years or more. They start with an assessment programme of four weeks, and must spend time working in the community before proceeding to a full-time job outside. Some are employed in the prison's own workshops, others do domestic tasks within the prison. A few go into full-time education, and about a third are employed outside. There is an obligatory savings scheme, and just under pounds 20 a week is handed over for bed and breakfast at the prison: arguably the rate should be higher for those who can afford it. Weekends are spent at home.

All this may seem far too liberal to people who have either been victims of crime or believe that prisons are for harsh treatment as well as the deprivation of liberty. That viewpoint is likely to be over-represented in Bournemouth.

No one would wish prisoners who are still potentially dangerous to be allowed into the community: after several serious cases of reoffending while on temporary release or home leave from ordinary prisons, the criteria for such schemes were rightly tightened last year.

But to scrap those features of the present system, or to cut back on the work being done by Latchmere House and other resettlement prisons, would be counterproductive. Long-term prisoners who are not helped to reintegrate into the outside world are most vulnerable to pressure to revert to their old ways. Rather than any curtailment of Latchmere-style regimes, consideration should be given to extending them when more evidence is available of effectiveness in preventing recidivism.