How to change the prison system

Prison reformers should listen to those with direct experience of the system – ex-offenders. This is the argument of the Members of Only Connect, a creative criminal justice charity. The authors of this collective essay, all ex-offenders, offer their insights.

It seems like everyone’s talking about what’s going to happen to the justice system. Everyone has an opinion on what needs to happen to fix the crime problem in the UK, and everyone is being listened to, aside from the one group that may actually have the insight and the imagination and the frontline experience to come up with some solutions that will stick – the people who have been through the system themselves.

The problem is that politicians making the rules aren’t looking at crime at the human level. The people making the decisions are sitting in a posh office: they don’t know us. They go and visit a prison and they only see the best bits. They don’t see why people are forced to go down the road of crime, so they can’t do anything to stop them.

Offenders, ex-offenders, criminals, people who’ve got into trouble, real people – whatever you want to call us, we have a valuable perspective on what needs to happen next with the justice system. We understand walking the line between the street life and going back to prison, and what needs to happen in our lives to make sure we don’t mess up again.

No-one listens to us, though. It’s funny. There’s a banking crisis, and everyone gets together and asks bankers an on expensive panel what needs to change. But your average banged up prisoner hardly has a platform to speak out, whatever they might have to say that might be useful.

There aren’t really that many people committing crimes in this country. The problem is that it’s the same old faces coming in and going out of prison. You ask the police, they’ll tell you that. Reoffending costs our country up to £13 billion a year. Two thirds of prisoners released from short-term sentences go on to reoffend within a year. Almost 70 per cent of young offenders go on to reoffend.

The government needs to put into place activity that recognises that. Most people aren’t born bad. There has to be a reason why they are offending or feel like they need to do things that are against the law. Without looking at the root causes of what makes people offend and reoffend again, the cycle will never be broken.

To really tackle crime, you shouldn’t start with crime: you should start with housing. Make sure everyone has somewhere to live, with jobs and opportunities. Give everyone a chance to earn a liveable wage honestly, with education, and sorting out the drugs problems that we have in this country. Sort these out, and you’ll see a massive drop in crime levels. And isn’t that what everyone wants?

First things first

Before doing anything, the Justice Secretary will need to decide that he is going to be brave. That he is not going to chase immediate popularity. Here’s the problem – the media, the public – if they think that ‘criminals’ or undeserving youth are getting something for free, if they think that we are getting access to programmes that they aren’t or housing that they aren’t, or doing practical and productive work in prison, then they kick off.

Then the government or the prison or the council back down, because they need to be popular to keep their jobs. So there’s no investment in activity that could actually help. These are the same people that kick off when crime levels go up, remember. Someone needs to tell them that they can’t have it both ways. Either you spend and stop crime, or you don’t – and crime continues.

Everyone knows there’s no money. We got together – over 50 of us, connected through and with Only Connect – and started looking at ways that the new government could practically make changes to the law. Ideas that had two conditions – they have to be cheap, and we had to agree that we thought that they would make an immediate difference to crime levels.

Let us work

There’s no doubt about one thing. It’s really difficult to find work when you’re out of prison. All of the places that most people might think you could find work – McDonald’s for instance – it’s not like you have a chance to prove to them that you are a good worker. All of the big companies just ask you to fill in an application form online. On the form, they ask if you have a criminal conviction. If you don’t disclose it, you’re a liar and will get sacked. If you disclose it, you won’t get the job. Your CV won’t even get looked at.

41 per cent of prisoners are under 30. That means that they’ve got almost 30 years of their productive working life left. So much left to give, and they’re not getting a chance to give it. We said before that we have no voice. Who is going to listen to a bunch of ex-offenders! But you know who businesses do listen to? The government. Especially if it changes the law to make it worth their while to employ ex-offenders.

In America, businesses pay lower taxes if they employ someone who has been in prison. If this happened in the UK, people would get a chance to prove themselves. The way that the goverment could do this is by putting rules around any organisations that are in their supply chain. If you take government money, you should give guaranteed interviews to ex-offender applicants. You don’t have to hire them, but it gives people a chance to show their personality at least. Secondly, if you hire an ex-offender, you should potentially pay less tax for the first years of their employment. This way the business wins, and people looking for a chance out of prison win.

A room of one’s own

Let us paint you a picture. Imagine that you come out of prison. You walk out, with your £46 in your pocket. You need to find a place to go. It’s unlikely that you have your own place, even if you had one before you were banged up it’s probably gone back to the landlord by now. Maybe you can stay with family and friends, maybe you can go into a hostel. It’s rare to find someone who knows where they are going for the long term. You get on a bus. They don’t take cash anymore. You have to go and find an oyster and top it up. That’s £10 gone. £36 left.

Three weeks later. You’re looking for a job. It’s hard to get one without a stable address. You’re signing on but it’s going to take a while. Your £36 went ages ago. You’re borrowing from friends and family but patience is running thin. You’re dossing from sofa to sofa. As a single man you’re at the bottom of the council’s housing list. Private rented accommodation is way beyond your reach – who has almost £2000 in deposit, first month’s rent up front? So you go and see a mate you used to know, who always used to sort you out – and you end up in trouble again.

The importance of having a stable place to live can’t be overestimated when you’re trying to stay straight. Scarcity of social housing means that for most of us, the private rented sector is the only real option for somewhere more permanent. Despite this, it remains closed off for many. There are two key obstacles against ‘admission’ to the private rented sector. Most landlords will discriminate against ex-offenders, and you just can’t afford the deposit.

We think it’s time for some forward thinking from local authorities. They are the ones that often have to pick up the bill for social housing and for rising crime, so a little bit of investment could reap huge rewards. Some local authorities, like Islington, already offer programmes which help homeless people into private rented accommodation – why can’t these be extended?

Our idea is that local councils, after they’ve assessed you and made sure you’re working to find a job or have a job, could help with a reference and with a loan programme for the deposit. An official reference from the council would make a landlord more likely to trust you and take you on. A loan for the cost of the deposit and first month’s rent could be repaid over a longer time, perhaps two years, and would be taken through higher council tax. This would help you stay near your family, give you an incentive to stay in work, and provide some security.

The drugs don’t work

Everyone knows that behind most crimes, and behind most criminals, you’ll find drugs. Drugs are so easy to get, and so easy to get hooked on. Seventy per cent of offenders have misused drugs prior to prison, and over half are addicts. It continues in prison, too. You have RAPT and AA and other services in prison, but there’s never enough help. Sometimes you want to take drugs because there’s nothing else to do.

Coming out of prison with a habit, that’s the worst. That’s a surefire way to make sure that you get straight back on it, looking for a way to fund yourself. There are lads outside prison that will give you a couple of bags for free when you get out, and then you owe them money. Or you go out celebrating with your mates, and suddenly if you got clean inside, you’re not clean now.

The problem is all of the secrecy and hiding with drugs. That’s why legal drugs are so popular. Not because they are cheaper, or easier to get hold of, but because you can be open with them and you don’t think you’ll get nicked for having them. The more open you can be about using drugs, the more likely you are going to be to get help. If you are ashamed and hide it away, you’ll never go and seek the help you need, get clean and get straight.

In other countries, they have Drug Consumption Rooms. These are medical places where addicts can go and use drugs with clean needles and doctors. They’ve got them everywhere – in places like Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, Luxembourg, Norway, Canada and Australia. What they do is they bring addicts out of alleys, out of the street. People begin to trust the doctors there, and they can get onto rehab programmes. No-one’s dropping needles in parks, everyone’s happy.

They were going to open a Drug Consumption Room in Brighton in 2013, but the council backed down. No-one likes their taxes being spent on smackheads and thieves. Again, this is an example of where the government needs to be brave and think about the long-term benefit. If you want to cut down on petty theft and break-ins, cut down on the number of addicts.

Treat women differently

We think that you should treat women differently when it comes to sentencing. Prison affects women totally differently to men. It takes away their confidence and their potential. It’s way more expensive to house a woman in prison because you have to take into account the cost of taking her kids into care. 18,000 children are split up from their mums every year when they go into custody. Many of those kids go into care, which increases their likelihood of going to prison. It’s a vicious circle.

Of course dangerous people should go to prison, violent people, that sort of thing, but we do believe that women, especially those with children, should be given community sentences where possible. This keeps families together, and gives women a chance to rehabilitate in the community.

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The justice system is broken. It’s broken for victims. It’s broken for people who go to prison and come out, not rehabilitated, with even less ability to take a straight path. But there is so much potential. By making a few unpopular decisions now, the Justice Secretary could be left with some very popular results – and happy people – later.