On Wednesday afternoon at the University of Sussex, there will be a public showing of a film called ‘Injustice’ which focuses on the crisis in our prison service. The film explains that we need to see a major change to the way in which people who break our laws are treated and indeed the way in which vulnerable people in society are cared for. It is deeply concerning that 6 years after the introduction of the role of Police and Crime Commissioner, that there has been no significant positive change to the way in which the victims or perpetrators of crime are treated as a result of the work of most PCCs. Had the breadth of the ideas behind the PCC role which Nick Herbert, MP for Arundel helped to shape been followed through by Theresa May and subsequently Amber Rudd, MP for Hastings and Home Secretary, the current situation could be significantly different. An alternative would be to change the name of the Commissioner to the Police Commissioner, or in the light of their interest and that of our own PCC, Blue Light Commissioner as they have all sought to connect the work of the PCC to that of the Fire and Rescue Service, completely ignoring the rest of the Criminal Justice System (CJS). To their credit a small number of PCC’s across the country have attempted to fulfil the Crime Commissioner element of the post. However such attempts have been met with a great deal of resistance by the Government when challenges are made to the way in which the Courts, Probation and the Prison Service operate. Nick Herbert explained in 2011 that the term CJS was rather misleading as the idea of a coherent system was a long way from the way in which the various elements connect and work together.
A large number of people who are taken into our prisons as a consequence of them breaking laws, are simply held against their will in an environment that is both dangerous and lacking in any support for them, so that when they are released with little or no preparation and external support, the prospects of them repeating their behaviour is high. No one I have met who works for charities that try to support people who have spent time in prison such as Sussex Pathways which I am proud to say I helped to establish back in 2008 would argue that law breakers should not face punishment for their crimes. However punishment alone does little to protect society from the laws being broken again. A large number of people every year break speeding laws and when this is their first time and their speed is not dramatically high compared to the speed limit, many are invited to attend a speed awareness course which explains about the risks of this behaviour and why the laws are set as they are. The prospect for these same people of sitting alone in a room for a few hours would be a great deal less effective than is the case for those who attend such courses. The cost of doing so would not be much different but the whole point of the speed awareness courses is to change the behaviour of the offenders and there are indications that such courses do have a positive impact on some of those who attend.
The purpose of prison is supposed to be fourfold. The punishment or retribution element is clear to most people outside of a small number of reactive politicians and journalists and a small proportion of society. Anyone who questions this should visit a prison and find out for themselves. However there are numerous ways that society can punish people that does not rely on them being locked away from the rest of society at a significant cost to all of us. The next two elements are deterrence and rehabilitation which are a focus on how the people concerned will behave in the future. Almost no work is carried out to achieve these objectives in most of our prisons which is why there is such a clear revolving door statistic but this activity if it was available could be achieved just as easily outside of prison as inside without any difficulty
Finally there is a protection or incapacitation element which is an attempt to protect society and those who have broken laws from their own actions. In reality very small numbers of people who are locked up in prisons would put society or themselves at risk if they were not locked up, however these few cases clearly need to continue to be treated in this manner, at least until these people are able to change their behaviour following an effective rehabilitation and deterrence programme.