Jonathan Aitken, the disgraced Conservative minister, found God and
a new wife when he came out of prison. Lord Archer appears to have
acquired a sense of empathy (while forfeiting his title) with those
he once considered lesser mortals..
In a speech to a Howard League for Penal Reform conference last
week, he gave his thoughts on penal reform. It had its
authoritarian moments but much of what he advocates makes sense.
For instance, first-time offenders – often incarcerated for traffic
offences – should not be banged up with professional criminals.
They should be categorised earlier. He also suggests that a
distinction be made in prison punishment between those caught
smoking marijuana and those found injecting heroin.
A third idea is that an intensive 12-week reading and writing
course should be provided for the many who are illiterate – and
here is the hard edge – culminating in a compulsory test. “The
prisoner would have to pass [the test] before they could be
considered for any other job, or, even more draconian, early
release,” he says. He also makes the case for prisoners who make
use of full-time educational opportunities being paid the same
weekly wage – £12 – as those who do prison jobs instead of the
current £4 to £5 a week.
But why not give them more, as a further incentive to learn?
Indeed, the fact that they are financially penalised in the first
place, raises the notion that a range of institutions, not just
prisons, might benefit from an annual common sense audit on the way
the organisation is run.
Prisoners who emerge from jail with qualifications obviously
improve their chances of finding a better paid job – so why on
earth are they docked half a week’s wage because they want to
To give another example of what a common sense check might unearth.
We live in a 24-hour economy in which shifts and unsocial hours are
now deemed part of the “normal” working week. Yet, parole terms
often stipulate that an ex-prisoner is not allowed to leave his
place of residence before 7am or after 7pm. As a result, a whole
raft of jobs are out of reach.
Rules and regulations have a way of becoming embedded in the
system, unchanged although society has rapidly moved on. Archer, to
his credit, has pointed that out – but there’s something rotten in
the body politic when the only voices it appears to heed on prison
reform are those of celebrity ex-cons.