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.