Letter: Tougher prisons fail to deter prisoners from crime

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The Independent Online
Sir: The Home Secretary's reported wish to pursue a policy of greater 'austerity' in jail regimes ('Howard's tougher jails idea dismissed'; Home News, 23 August) will cause dismay throughout the prison system. It is wholly inconsistent with the prison service's own vision statement, which aspires to a reputation as 'a standard of excellence around the world'.

Mr Howard's error is to mistake a punitive ethos for one that is effective in diverting prisoners from crime. Indeed, this crude psychology threatens to undermine the efforts of those jails that are putting into practice the concepts of respect and justice at the heart of the Woolf report.

I spent part of last week visiting an excellent prison in the north of England that aims to offer all its prisoners some form of employment or paid training before release. It also tries to secure accommodation prior to release, and ensure that prisoners give personal attention to tackling the causes of offending. All prisoners take part in a two-week pre-release course soon after arrival. This is run by prison staff, but with input from outside agencies: Citizens Advice Bureaux, drugs and alcohol counsellors, and the probation service. This is followed by a three-day job search/job club.

Because of high levels of unemployment, not every prisoner can expect to find full-time employment. But some do, and are able to save their earnings for release. Others are in part-time jobs or have found unpaid community work.

By no stretch of the imagination was the regime 'austere'. But neither was it a country club. Prisoners with whom I spoke - many with long experience of prison life - were under no illusions about the benefits they derived. There was genuine pride in, and commitment to, the institution. Sadly, we have too few prisons of this kind, preparing prisoners for their release. And there are far too many where Mr Howard's perception of laxity is a sick joke.

Yours faithfully,

STEPHEN SHAW

Director

Prison Reform Trust

London, N1

23 August

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