My reflections on attending ‘Prisons in England and Wales – investment, governance and rehabilitation’ on 18th April 2016, as part of the Westminster Legal Policy Forum.

Chrissie Rogers

Prisoners and families: the prison as a space of hope?

The purpose of the Westminster Legal Policy Forum, ‘Prisons in England and Wales – investment, governance and rehabilitation’ (18th April 2016) was to share knowledge about prison reform and rehabilitation. One highlight of the event was Yvonne Jewkes’ keynote presentation, ‘Prisons in England and Wales – the context for reform’. In drawing on an old British Journal of Criminology special issue that was devoted to ‘prison architecture’ (1961: vol 1, issue 4), she argued that prisoners ought to be able to serve their time closer to home. She also highlighted the fallacy of designing prisons depending on the level of security, rather than on the basis of projections of future need. She suggested the UK needed to reform the prison system around architectures of hope. Hopeful spaces to my mind suggest caring and care-full spaces. As Jewkes put it, ‘We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity, not only to radically reform the prison estate, but in doing so, to nurture a different philosophy of punishment in the minds of politicians, policy-makers and the public’.

Equally illuminating were presentations from ex-offenders, prison service personnel, and presenters in two later sessions called, ‘Transforming the prison estate – modernisation, investment, capacity and operational autonomy’ and ‘Making prisons places of rehabilitation – next steps for improving outcomes in training, education and resettlement’, respectively. In the first of these sessions, Erwin James, author and columnist for The Guardian and an ex-offender said, ‘I started writing in prison simply because I was fed up of the media telling the whole world that I was living in a holiday camp. My first 8 years I just had a bucket for my toilet, a chair, a table and a bed in my cell, was locked up for my first year 23 hours a day in my cell, just with a radio, thank God I had books, thank God I could read’. In the later session, Darren Burns, National Recruitment Ambassador, Timpson Group, also an ex-offender, provided some clues about how rehabilitation might be enhanced within the prison system: ‘We believe that prisons should engage more with industry and identify skills shortages within the workplace, enabling them to take advantage of the many talented men and women in the UK prison system to date’. Imprisonment compounds social disadvantage and exclusion. A significant minority of prisoners have acute learning difficulties. Burns’s suggestion represents an imaginative, but practical way, of reducing these effects. There is a need for hope: for families, for education and for legal and political systems. There is also a need for radical reform, especially for those who are unable to represent themselves in any meaningful way due to a learning difficulty.