Time for a critical look at our prisons
AT FIRST GLANCE you might wonder why we’ve devoted most of this issue to reports about criminal justice system. At second glance you might wonder why these issues are of relevance to you. But the opportunity to share experience with other countries gives fresh perspective and evidence from experience – not just on the effectiveness of incarceration, but on harm reduction measures and their effect on drug users’ behaviour and welfare. It also gives us a rare opportunity to stand back and assess what works back home. This week justice secretary Ken Clarke has been exploring the idea of alternatives to prison sentences, looking instead at community sentences and ‘payment by results’ rehabilitation. Not so long ago politicians in this country seemed fixated on the idea of American style ‘super-prisons’ to warehouse a burgeoning prison population. Is the evidence now filtering through that drug-using offenders merely go on to reoffend? ‘Prison works,’ said Michael Howard as home secretary in the 1990s. ‘Yeah right,’ I hear you say now. It was interesting to hear at several conference sessions how the UK is the envy of many other countries in its treatment of drug users, its pragmatic employment of harm reduction measures and its swift referral to rehabilitation. We could take inspiration from this – and we could choose to capitalise on it while political ears are open. At this week’s cross-party group in Parliament (page 6), MPs were keen to emphasise that expertise and advice is welcome from all quarters – a sentiment that we hear echoed in the first statements coming from the coalition. But as well as the plaudits for progress, we should seize the opportunity for critical review. This afternoon my copy of Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners, arrived. Its headline is ‘Prisons are awash with drugs’, a story that gives results of a readers’ survey and concludes that £100m worth of drugs are smuggled into prison every year. Is this a sign of our success?