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Is Prison Working?


By Josie Channer

This structured daily prison routine is designed to manage time, not to instigate a change of behaviour. Therefore in my view, prison does not rehabilitate or even punish those that will eventually once more become our neighbours.

Josie Channer Prison Officer

The responsibility for rehabilitation should, I believe, lay with the prison service itself and not the multiple agencies that, with little results, we employ. From my experience, it’s clear that we need separate specialised facilities for drug rehabilitation, mental health and youth offenders. The one-size-fits-all is simply not working. I ask myself if it’s really worth sending an eighteen year old shoplifter to prison for a few weeks, or even handing down a community service order, only to have them back again year after year when the real issue is their drug habit and/or mental health problem. A longer sentence that would give such an offender a qualification or a trade skill whilst dealing with issue at the heart of her re-offending would be more productive. The cost of the current approach is too high for society.

In August 2011, London saw four nights of rioting on a scale more widespread than any in living memory. Twenty-two of the thirty-three London boroughs experienced violence, and as many as 30,000 people were estimated to have been involved. As a former prison officer, I wonder if prison is able to deliver either punishment or rehabilitation, and whether or not prison is the best answer to London’s troubles.

In the days and weeks that have followed, we have been asking why it happened, how can we stop it from happening again and whether or not this was just simple criminality and opportunism, or a sign of something deeper. The answer to those questions for many has been to lock “them” up, make examples of them through tough sentences, and for more robust policing. This has been greeted with the seal of public approval. In the short term, this may seem to have quelled the fury on London’s streets, but I am not convinced that harsh prison sentences will do anything in the short term or long term.

From my experience in the prison service, I believe that we need to address an already failing system. The prison population has doubled in size from 41,000 in 1991 to well over 86,000. This trend seems set to grow further.

Repeat offenders account for 43% of prisoners bouncing in and out of prison with their underlying issues never being addressed. Kenneth Clarke MP, the justice secretary, surprisingly began his tenure by listening to the views of prison governors advocating how we should treat less serious crimes. But, given the sudden shift to the right on law and order, I will be interested to see if he will return to the familiar Conservative policy of simply building more prisons.

On my first day of training as a new prison officer, I remember being told that prison was not a punishment. Having their freedom taken away by the courts was the punishment. Prison was there to rehabilitate. This was an ethos I held dear, but found frustrating as we did nothing to actually promote rehabilitation.

In 2002 when I started at HMP Holloway, Europe’s largest female prison, it was common for prisoners to spend up to 22 hours a day in their cells with little to keep them occupied. Visitors would be shocked at the level of noise, which would sound as if the prisoners were going mad in their cells. In the years that followed, I saw reform and investment that had an effect on conditions and the way the prison was run. All of the cells got T.V sets and staff levels increased which allowed for activities such as art lessons or time spent in the gymnasium. But is this rehabilitation? I agree with prison governors who say that, due to the short sentences that many prisoners receive, it is not possible for the prison system to be as constructive as it would like.

At a cost of £38,000 a year for each prisoner, I believe that there are more effective ways this money could be spent, such as drug rehabilitation, training or developing our industrial and service sectors so that there are jobs out there. These are long-term solutions that I believe more than ever we now need to promote.

I find it difficult to accept the view that the riots were just “mindless” violence and ‘copy cat’ opportunism which prison is going fix. I also believe that there’s more to the argument that they were due to an unequal society, which investment in deprived communities can fix. Throwing money at a problem tends to yield few results. The questions I think we should be asking is whether or not there is sufficient social mobility for those near the bottom to believe that they have the opportunities to bridge that gap, and for hard-working, low income families to feel their efforts are rewarded with acceptable standards of living.

The reasons for the violence might be a combination of many things. For me, the demise of our industrial economy over the last thirty years, coupled with the fierce competition (not least from the ‘new’ communities) for jobs in the service and retail sectors, has presented huge challenges to London’s working class, both black and white. Finding pride in earning a living wage, in buying affordable decent homes, and finding inspiration in local communities appear barren.

An already struggling prison system in need of reform will not address the wider and long-term issues surrounding the riots. I hope that a much deeper debate on the underlying challenges that London faces will result in more than just superficial changes.


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