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HM Prison Service has faced a sceptical response after the BBC revealed that it has been selling vaporisers to the inmates of Preston Prison. Many people believe the point of prison is to teach criminals a lesson, not to hand out luxury items with the aim of keeping them comfortable. This criticism of the Prison Service’s new initiative highlights a general consensus that the UK seems to hold in regard to the justice system. It’s not so much a case of rehabilitating those convicted as it is of doling out harsh punishments in the interest of a public sense of “retribution”.
Perhaps this view is propagated by those who see the bleak fate of prison as a deterrent, although the government estimates that 60% of inmates in short term prisons will reoffend once they are released. So, keeping prison as a dark, joyless place doesn’t seem to work in ensuring that the nation’s crime rates stay down. And perhaps this move to encourage inmates to give up smoking is a step in the right direction. It may only be a small step, but it’s one that seems more focused on reforming those in prison nonetheless.
Right now, it’s pretty clear that the current system isn’t working all that well. In the past 20 years, the number of inmates in Britain’s prisons has doubled. Headlines across the country consistently concern the overcrowding in the prison system. So what’s the solution? I definitely don’t think that building more institutions to house inmates is the answer, as some have suggested. For one, this would cost the taxpayer more money. It also doesn’t deal with the root of the problem. We could go on constructing prisons indefinitely, as long as people keep offending. They get sent down, they get let out, and the majority reoffend… It’s a never-ending cycle.
HM Prison Service seem to have clocked on to this fact and their new initiative is one of a number that could help. Changes have already been drawn up to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act of 1974, and they will come into effect sometime in March. This will entail a period of time within which certain offenders’ convictions will become “spent” and outlines how this will positively impact on the kinds of work and insurance they may apply for.
This is definitely an improvement for those who have finished their sentences, but what about those who are still serving their time? Currently there are no schemes within prisons that are implemented nationwide; select institutes may choose to offer programmes that rehabilitate prisoners if they want to. This could include anything from workshops on job-hunting to improving vocational know-how in work environments. It equips inmates with a range of skills they can utilise once they leave prison, and so provides a way for them to successfully integrate back into society. It obviously follows that someone who is given this help is less likely to reoffend, but unfortunately there are no guarantees that any prisoner can access these services.
It makes no sense, then, that there has been such cynicism in response to the Prison Service’s latest move to effectively ‘better’ prisoners. The vast majority of people appear to forget that most of the prison population isn’t made up of serial killers and rapists, but those who have been reprimanded for far less serious offences and are, at some point, going to rejoin society. This is important to remember when forming any opinion on the prison system. Common sense suggests that we should want to do everything we can to rehabilitate these inmates before they are released.
By demonising a large percentage of the prison population, we forget that they are still human, and have basic human rights that must be met. Right now, a culture of penalisation and punishment is promoted. Maybe if we employed a justice system that focused more on rehabilitation our total number of inmates would half, not double.