On offenders, rehabilitation and the importance of books

It is one of the great mysteries of life that government policy is never rooted in anything as mundane as evidence. We have seen this in terms of drug policy and the advice given to expectant mothers over the amount of alcohol they should (or should not) take. It’s there in Gove’s disastrous education rhetoric and in Hunt’s much-criticised health reforms. The latest piece of dangerous twaddle relates to books, which are now apparently to be used as a carrot to convince prisoners to ‘be good’. Let’s think a bit about what we know of prisoners, shall we?

• A third of prisoners has been in the care system
• Half ran away from home as children
• Poverty is highly correlated with offending
• A third truanted from school on a regular basis
• Between a third and half were excluded from school
• Up to 70% have no qualifications when they leave school
• Up to a quarter attended a school for people with special educational needs
• 65% have poor numeracy levels (below the standard expected of an 11 year-old)
• Half have poor literacy
• 80% have poor writing skills

Incidentally, these figures are all taken from a report published by the Cabinet Office. So we have a group of people who are severely disadvantaged and who, unsurprisingly, tend not to be in secure employment, if any. They tend to have drug and alcohol problems (remember the social and emotional effects of an unstable childhood and traumatic experiences. If you’re not sure what they are, use your imagination, and then look again at the list above. The consequences are often bad).

We often talk in forensic services (those for offenders with mental disorders) about whether prisons are there to protect the public, to punish or to rehabilitate. Governments tend to like the first two; people who actually work in the system tend to favour the latter, with a healthy regard for the former. We see that there are reasons for offending behaviour; not excuses, but reasons. For lots of people life is tough and if you haven’t experienced it, it can be hard to understand why someone won’t just sort themselves out, get a job and a flat and be a good citizen. But it’s not always that easy. Some people do manage it and I take my hat off to them. But when you work with offenders you are likely to be dealing with people who have already been excluded from their families and schools and marginalised by society. No matter how liberal you think you are it’s quite possible you won’t want your children to be friends with the truant who began smoking and drinking when they were young and that you’ll try to encourage them to have more ‘suitable’ friends. What we end up with is two quite distinct social groups, with a significant disparity between them.

No matter what your political leanings, my suspicion is that almost everyone wants offenders to stop offending. A lot of time and effort and research goes into working out what helps. There are lots of offender training and treatment programmes in use but I won’t re-hash it here. Put simply, with appropriate input, even the most dangerous, high-risk offenders can demonstrate a reduction in violent and offending behaviour. Some will re-offend, but there’s no magic wand and none of us would claim there is. But do you know what does help? Being able to read. Literacy opens doors. If you can read and write, you are more likely to be able to get onto a training course. With qualifications you can get a job. With a job, you can enter another part of society. Yes, the stigma persists. Ex-offenders might not be top of your list of people to have to dinner, but don’t for one moment think that a criminal record stops you from wanting to change your life. The role of government and the public sector, therefore, is to facilitate that change. As a result, there has historically been a significant focus on providing prisoners with opportunities to learn, do to Access courses and NVQs and GCSEs and degrees. And lots of people come out of prison with qualifications and, crucially, with literacy levels which will enable them to get qualifications from mainstream providers. What’s more, the research backs all this up.

Chris Grayling, in his infinite wisdom, has decided that he doesn’t like this and that prisoners can’t be sent parcels of books or magazines. They still have access to prison libraries (which are unfortunately often under-funded and dependent on charitable donations) but can’t be sent them by those charities or their families. If prisoners are very, very good, they can get a little more money for privileges and are welcome to spend them on books. Most prisoners get £10-15 a week to spend on privileges. Once you’ve paid for toiletries and cigarettes, how much do you have left for books? Do you know how much books cost? Eight pounds for an average paperback. It’s not as though prisoners can nip to Oxfam to pick up a stack of improving literature, is it?

It’s not just books, of course. The prohibition relates to all parcels. No Christmas cards or gifts from your kids, so bang goes your relationship with them (never underestimate how important it is for a child to send their parent a card at Christmas). No stationery (so God help you when you want to practice your writing). No packages of clothing; not even underwear. Instead you go to the prison shop, run by a private company, to get whatever you need. Even if you took out all my costs of food and travel and curtailed my social life, I could not buy everything I need for a week for £15. Grayling thinks this will encourage rehabilitation. Like many of his colleagues in the Cabinet, he’s a dangerous fool. Humiliating people is anathema to rehabilitation, and make no mistake; this policy, dear reader, is nothing but sheer, vindictive humiliation.