Prisons: Let’s finish what we started

Whitemoor high-security prison in March
Whitemoor high-security prison in March
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Nearly two hundred years have passed since Elizabeth Fry, the great social reformer, shone a light into the darkness of England’s gaols. She devoted herself to the cause of humane treatment for prisoners, saying that “punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal.” Much has improved in our prisons since, but there is still much to do.

Reoffending rates have been too high for too long – 46% of all prisoners re-offend within a year of release. The cost to the taxpayer of recidivism is estimated to be as high as £13 billion per year, and the social costs higher still. Too many live a whole life of crime, returning to their old ways time and time again.

The failure to break this cycle of crime, by helping those released from prison to become responsible members of society, has long been a black mark on our criminal justice system. Fewer young people are turning to crime, but many ex-prisoners repeatedly reoffend.

As Minister for Skills, I worked on reforming prison education to ensure that inmates get meaningful and productive training and work while serving their sentences. Now, the Government is going still further, developing a plan for prison reform that will deliver better outcomes; improved public safety; and lower costs for taxpayers. Governors are best placed to know how to reduce re-offending by ensuring that inmates get the education, mental health support and drug rehabilitation they need, which is why these changes will give them full autonomy over how their prisons are managed.

Helping more offenders to go straight will reduce crime, but it’s also, as Fry believed, about saving souls, so building a stronger more stable civil order. As the Prime Minister said when he announced the reforms last week, “if we get it right, we can change lives and bring hope to those for whom it was in short supply; turning waste and idleness into prisons with purpose, turning remorse and regret into lives with new meaning. Finding diamonds in the rough and helping them shine.”

At the heart of my political credo is a belief that each feel valued when all feel valued: that a sense of fairness and opportunity is fundamental to building a more cohesive, contented society. Ultimately, social justice only has meaning if it applies to all. No one should be left behind, because each life has value and the potential to make a positive difference to others. Honouring the legacy of Elizabeth Fry, we should finish what she started.