I have wanted for some time to unveil my flagship policy, and today’s headlines about prison overcrowding offers that opportunity.
Everyone who comments on the issue of imprisonment appears to see black or white. “Bang ‘em up” or “forgive and forget”. On so many levels I would normally concur, but in my old age I am starting to discern shades of grey.
When I was 21, I was lucky enough to be entrusted with the training of young infantry recruits. We took into our care teenage vagrants and self confessed petty criminals. They slouched and sloped and hid all manner of self hatred and loathing behind a veil of threats and posturing. 26 weeks later they left the Depot with their heads held high and with utter belief and pride in themselves and each other. We had affected this change through a combination of challenge, hardship, punishment, reward and encouragement and by making the length of their training a matter over which they had an element of control. It remains one of the most enjoyable jobs I ever had.
I call this my flagship policy because of all the mad things I have thought up over the years this one continues to stand up to scrutiny (I think!).
Some believe that prison works and some believe it does not, but most people believe that the ideal is a prison that is tough, reforming and deterring, because we want criminals to pay for their crime but we want them to stop doing it when they come out.
Many people understand that prison is great while it lasts. The criminal is out of sight and out of mind. He is off the streets and poses no public danger. But everyone knows that prison is little more than a glorified crime school and that the vast majority of people coming out are better equipped to carry on where they left off.
Currently, we imprison people for a length of time. It is an uninspiring endurance test, its contestants stripped of any responsibility or control. They are clothed, fed and watered, they do nothing for themselves and have no means to do anything purposeful. Sure, they do run lessons in English, Maths and woodwork but most prison lessons differ from school only in the fact that you can’t play truant.
So you see, this is where my idea is a radical departure from the norm and yet starts to address the shades of grey between the throw away the key mob and the community service liberals.
I believe that you can give prisoners a role and responsibility in their punishment and reform by placing the length of term they serve very firmly in their own court. I know of no man or woman who possesses a complete education, so it stands to reason that any convicted criminal being sentenced to prison could be sentenced not to a period of time but to the attainment of the next most appropriate level of education and in an appropriate quantity of subjects.
Think about it just for a moment.
It is important to be clear that I do not propose that all classes of crime are sentenced in this way. Pedophiles, murderers, rapists etc will always attract the harshest time based sentences. But it is other crimes such as burglary, theft, shoplifting, assault, joy riding, fraud, drugs and so on to which this scheme offers so much. They do go to prison, but their relatively short sentence is spent focussed on doing what they have to to get out.
Suddenly you have very different prisoners. Sure, some may spend some time in resolute rebellion, but they do so only to their own disadvantage. But now they can switch the light on at the end of their own tunnel. The focus of their time in prison changes from endurance to attainment and personal advancement. Failure or reticence is punished. Achievement is rewarded and perhaps for the first time in many of their lives, and the launch pad for a new start and a new life is laid.
Some may argue that all you are doing is shifting the responsibilities of education to prison, to which I simply respond “so be it”, after all it is the failure of our schools that sowed these seeds in the first place, it is only right that the education system should continue to play a part for as long as it takes (more on education ideas later).
I propose this because I entirely agree with those who advocate zero tolerance of law breaking and that burglars, thieves and vagabonds should go to prison and that prison should be harsh enough to represent a deterrent to all but the most hardened and insecure.
But I also get the whole reform thing. Not the community service bollocks and the namby –pamby anger management courses and the African safaris etc. But proper reform that alters attitudes and demonstrates the benefits of conforming. What is the point of incarceration if you release someone more capable and more inclined to continue a life of crime. Society takes one pace forward and two paces back.
I propose this idea because it ensures criminals are sent to prison, but it ensures that they are sent to a new and different sort of prison – one which is a damn sight more likely to release a person with pride and integrity rather than a vagrant with envy and spite written all over their face.