Reducing re-offending? – don’t make me laugh!

Re-offending costs a shitload of money. Billions of pounds. Not 3 or 4, but double figures. Over £18 billion. EIGHTEEN BILLION £££££££S. Or 180 Lionel Messi’s.

In 2002, the Social Exclusion Unit produced a report into reducing the re-offending rates of ex-prisoners with the catchy title ‘Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners’, Report by the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU). Tony Blair wrote the foreword, in which he stated, “[…] we have massively expanded drug treatment provision to break the link between drugs and crime, and invested in prison education to double the number of educational qualifications achieved by prisoners by the end of next year. And this effort is starting to pay off. Crime is down 21 per cent since 1997. Reconviction rates for juveniles serving community sentences are down 14 per cent.”

He also said, “Just as striking are the deep problems faced by many prisoners. Many have very poor skills, are unemployed on entering prison, and have a history of homelessness, drug addiction and mental health problems. This report highlights how intrinsically linked this level of social exclusion is with re-offending. These problems do not excuse criminal behaviour, but they do begin to show how we help people put a stop to it.”

The SEU identified 9 key areas that influenced re-offending. These are:

● education;
● employment;
● drug and alcohol misuse;
● mental and physical health;
● attitudes and self-control;
● institutionalisation and life-skills;
● housing;
● financial support and debt; and
● family networks.

There is no coincidence between my successful turning away from crime and prison and the above list being exactly the areas I worked on during my last stint in prison. There is also no coincidence we know the list as the pathways for reducing re-offending. I’d like to point out at this stage that you hopefully would have noticed a glaring omission from the above list. It hasn’t been omitted on purpose because it wasn’t there to begin with and that is mainly due to the fact that building new prisons does not, and will never, reduce re-offending. So! Moving on.

I’m glad to see, by design or not, education sitting at the top of that list. You all know how much I bang on about the importance of education and how important my prison education was and is to me and there is good reason behind me doing so. It bloody works. Simples. Let’s look at the stats again, which I use regularly to highlight the position regarding the education background of prisoners. 88% of children in custody have been excluded from school at some point. In the adult prison estate, the figure is 42% which equates to over 30,000 of the prison population right now. The following is a brief snapshot of the landscape of prison when the report was produced some eighteen years ago:

Many prisoners have experienced a lifetime of social exclusion. Compared with the general population, prisoners are thirteen times as likely to have been in care as a child, thirteen times as likely to be unemployed, ten times as likely to have been a regular truant, two-and-a-half times as likely to have had a family member convicted of a criminal offence, six times as likely to have been a young father, and fifteen times as likely to be HIV positive. Many prisoners’ basic skills are very poor. 80% have the writing skills, 65% the numeracy skills and 50% the reading skills at or below the level of an 11-year-old child. 60 to 70% of prisoners were using drugs before imprisonment. Over 70% suffer from at least two mental disorders. And 20% of male and 37% of female sentenced prisoners have attempted suicide in the past.

The position is often even worse for 18–20-year-olds, whose basic skills, unemployment rate and school exclusion background are all over a third worse than those of older prisoners. Despite high levels of need, many prisoners have effectively been excluded from access to services in the past. It is estimated that around half of prisoners had no GP before they came into custody; prisoners are over twenty times more likely than the general population to have been excluded from school; and one prison drugs project found that although 70% of those entering the prison had a drug misuse problem, 80% of these had never had any contact with drug treatment services.

Personally, I struggle to see what has changed since, apart from the government. Oh yeah! And in May 2007 the introduction of the newly formed Ministry of Justice. They formed the Ministry to bring together the prisons, courts and probation service all under one roof to create a more coherent system. (I know, I almost spat my coffee out reading “a more coherent system”) They believed that they could look at the complete life of the offender, all the way from arrest to release. Lying at the heart of the Ministry’s work is the reduction of re-offending and protecting the public. Seems straight forward enough to me. However, it begs the question even more why £2.3 billion has been earmarked for 10,000 NEW and EXTRA prison spaces? Or how that will reduce re-offending.

80% have the writing skills, 65% the numeracy skills and 50% the reading skills at or below the level of an 11-year-old child. 60 to 70% of prisoners were using drugs before imprisonment. Over 70% suffer from at least two mental disorders. […] Despite high levels of need, many prisoners have effectively been excluded from access to services in the past.

Rather than read the above repeated paragraph, I would ask that you digest it, toss it around in your head for a while. For a start, it is a good way to be in the mind of a prisoner with all the above going on in their lives. And that’s before they’ve offended and become a prisoner. Plus, education, drug problems and mental health are only three out of the 9 pathways introduced to us by the 2002 Social Exclusion Unit report into reducing the re-offending rates of ex-prisoners.

I propose, suggest, am screaming out for an alternative to reducing re-offending but based on the same pathways. However, rather than introduce the notion once the stable door has been bolted, and the horse nowhere to be seen (no doubt off offending somewhere), let us utilise the pathways so we can divert our children away from the school to prison pipeline. 42% of the adult prison estate, 42%, that is over 30,000 of adults in prison at this moment who were excluded from school at some point.

We know the route into prison and why/how individuals take that route. The sooner we focus on understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences, understanding that prisoners start off life as children (whether people are born bad is another debate but are they, really?) Understanding that a child’s disruptive and challenging behaviour isn’t because they are naughty, or drunk, or high on drugs, or because they have a disorder but because they are screaming out for help and don’t know how to do it the conventional way because no one has listened or explained. The sooner we do that, then the sooner we can shut off the school to prison pipeline and rather than build NEW and EXTRA prison spaces, we can close prisons.

Let’s see a commitment to stop offending. I can guarantee it will produce better results than locking an empty stable.

One thought on “Reducing re-offending? – don’t make me laugh!

  1. Absolutely right David, and it is not just theoretical because if you look at other countries who follow this path of investing in people instead of just locking them up for longer and longer sentences you can see that it works so well. Norway have this approach, cut reoffending, and actually close prisons rather than build new ones.

    Liked by 1 person

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