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Howard League blog · 24 Oct 2016

We’ve tried expecting prisons to rehabilitate and they just don’t

The RSA has today published a report suggesting the purpose of prison should be changed to one that is truly about rehabilitation.

Whilst I recognise this is a well-meaning report that makes some interesting recommendations around devolving criminal justice budgets, it seems to be in danger of perpetuating the failure that has been at the heart of the penal system for the past 200 years.

The idea that we can create a structure that rehabilitates people is flawed. We have tried to do that in all sorts of different ways and, whilst in individual cases it can be effective, across the piste it has proved an expensive failure.

We have tried isolating people in custody so they could contemplate God and their misdemeanours and be kept separate from contaminating experiences. In the 19th Century this involved isolation in cells, wearing hoods on exercise so prisoners could not see each other, and even being separated in chapels. Rather than rehabilitating people this led to suicide and continued reoffending.

Even in the 20th century prisons used to attempt to flog people into rehabilitation. That was seen as barbaric and ineffective and was ended.

My concern is that constantly talking up rehabilitation in the expectation that prisons can, indeed should, change lives is at best optimistic and at worst patronising.

In recent decades rehabilitation has focused on teaching basic skills and this too has been singularly ineffective at reducing reoffending.

Drug rehab in prison hasn’t worked either as more people seem to start taking drugs in prison than get off them.

So is it time to face up to the idea that custody can only rarely be a rehabilitative process? The most we can hope for is that it changes someone sufficiently so that it stops making things worse.

I will qualify this to the extent that there are prisons that run on such different lines that they do have a history of success in rehabilitation. Grendon prison is a democratic therapeutic community and has a history of success of reducing reoffending, so it can be done, but only for the very few people whose crimes are so serious and violent as to warrant rehabilitation through incarceration.

My concern is that constantly talking up rehabilitation in the expectation that prisons can, indeed should, change lives is at best optimistic and at worst patronising. The conversation must move on. We have tried expecting prisons to rehabilitate and they just don’t.

I hope politicians and charities will stop using the language of the past and explain things differently so that we can achieve real change in the system.


  • Jacqueline Madders says:

    For some, prison is the easier option to sleeping on the streets…social system is broken. Rethink humanity…give hope for housing. New system needed ..profiteering in penal system must be exposed.

  • A problem seems to be that those in charge do not understand the difference between reform and rehabilitation. Those who decide to change their ways and not re-offend usually need to learn how to behave and function in society. This process is rehabilitation. Reform must come before rehabilitation.
    Neither can be done effectively in prison.
    Until we learn that prison is not a place to punish or reform or rehabilitate, but only a place of restraint, we will always fail.

  • Rachel O'Brien says:

    While we all know there should be fewer people in prison, we should never abandon all hope for those who remain.
    The system is in crisis and we need a constructive debate about what to do.

  • Alison says:

    One of the things that govt has not tried is to involve current and former prisoners in designing a system that would work at least for the majority (you’ll never get something that will work for everyone). Anyone who has been convicted of a crime knows what it would take to stop them from a) committing crime in the first place or b) from reoffending. Interview enough and you’ll start to see patterns, then design stuff to fill actual needs of real people convicted of crime not those that so called “experts” come up with. Prisoners need to be at the heart of the process though otherwise nothing will change. Also note that if scandanavian countries, netherlands etc can come up with systems that work, quite why the UK cannot beggars belief

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