I would not hold out any great hopes for the recycled and tired initiatives announced by Liz Truss (Prisons given staff boost to tackle violence, 3 November). As a recently retired teacher of maths in prison, a job that I enjoyed immensely and where I came across a majority of motivated and diligent students with just a few resistant agitators, it seems to me that the general drift in offender education is the reverse of what is actually needed and has been given little thought in this radical new initiative, which is neither radical nor new.
The main provider of prison education in England sees this as a business opportunity and not a true mission to improve people’s life chances. Constant squeezing of the teachers’ terms, conditions and pay has led to an increasingly demoralised, casual and less-qualified workforce mirroring the situation in teaching in general, but amplified to an even greater degree. Closure of classes in painting and decorating, bricklaying and plastering – which would give real skills and job opportunities – for ones that can deliver immediate financial returns but fewer jobs in the real community does not work in the prisoners’ best interests. A constant drive to meet targets involving qualifications of doubtful benefit, notwithstanding the fact that the introduction of functional skills has been a good development, does not give prisoners the bits of paper that will really help them. I could carry on.
Prison education is a fundamental component of any reform strategy and needs creativity, imagination and a motivated, competent, decently rewarded and dedicated and secure staff, but if it continues to be driven as a commercial venture based on marketing, intimidation, target culture and a casual and cowed workforce with poor leadership it will continue to fail the prisoners.
• It isn’t just bleeding-heart Guardian readers who want prisons to rehabilitate rather than punish those who are let down by the understaffing of prisons. The “bang ’em up” brigade who demand security are being let down too.
Contraband is being delivered to upper cells in Pentonville prison in London by drone. All it needs is a warder outside with a mobile phone to call the inside staff and say: “It’s the end cell on The Twos” or whatever and it stops. But there aren’t enough staff to do this. The result is a rampaging drug-fuelled and illicit economy on the wings that engenders criminality rather than deters it.
There is scant scope for reform and rehabilitation inside today’s prisons but staff cuts ensure that ever more prisoners are released with experiences that ensure they will fail again. This a fraud perpetrated on the victims of crime by the state and must be stopped.
• Welcome though the home secretary’s topping up of the recently announced 400-strong increase in the number of prison officers to 2,500 is, it still leaves the service 4,500 short of the number employed in 2010. Ken Clarke is right to criticise the government’s failure to acknowledge that we have too many people in prison, for too long, including many on remand who do not end up with custodial sentences. It’s shameful, and counterproductive, that we have the highest rate of incarceration in Europe with the unappealing exceptions of Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Shadow justice minister, House of Lords
• Shouldn’t your headline have more accurately read “Government partially reverses previous prison staff cuts”?
• It is quite remarkable that your editorial (Prison won’t work without changes to sentencing, 4 November) could fail to mention the important role probation services have in this process. Indeed, to see that prison is “a total institution”, without any reference to the transition from prison to the community (commonly known as “through the prison gate”), is simply to reinforce the lack of strategic vision that characterises government’s criminal justice policy.
More offenders are going to prison for a variety of reasons (some acceptable, some less so); prison officer numbers are reducing; violence in both the male and female estate is escalating at an alarming rate. The government introduces a complete shake-up of the probation service in order to assist in short-term prisoner rehabilitation. Reports from the Inspectorate of Probation suggest this is failing badly. Where is the strategic vision? Where is the understanding and realisation that penology requires a whole-system approach, not an issue-by-issue kneejerk response?
Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire
• Your leader could have been written 40 years ago when I first joined the probation service. In essence, the debate is unchanged from that time. Perhaps there is a crisis in prisons because of the significant reduction in operational staff, but you are right to point out that fewer prison officers has nothing to do with the unacceptable size of the prison population and the consequent pressures therein.
Clearly prisons need more staff, but what we are also now seeing is the deleterious effect of the ideological and systematic changes imposed on the probation service from the mid-1990s onwards. The fundamental shift from care and control (rooted in rehabilitation) to punishment and enforcement (rooted in “protection of the public”), which began around that time, has meant that probation service interventions have tended to add to prison numbers rather than being significantly influential in their reduction. I’m not saying that protection of the public isn’t a necessary consideration for any criminal justice agency, or indeed that the probation service does not still undertake valuable rehabilitative work. But its position with courts, policymakers and the community at large, as a primary alternative to custody, somehow has got lost and it is hard to see things changing for the better with regard to sentencing and prison numbers until that important ground is regained.
Michael J Miller
Shipley, West Yorkshire
• There has been no mention of the probation service in all the press coverage of the prisons crisis.
I qualified as a probation officer at LSE in 1956. When asked at the Home Office why I chose to do so I replied: “To keep women out of prison.” I supervised many women offenders on probation. All cared for their families and did not offend again.
Nowadays prison very rarely works. The probation service needs to be given proper recognition again.
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