Because the criminal justice system is increasingly
focusing solely on punishment, large numbers of short-term
prisoners are leaving jail with little support and few prospects
outside, argues Alison Taylor.

Judging by the high rate of suicide among offenders soon after
they leave prison, it seems that, a handful of committed
organisations aside, few really care what befalls ex-prisoners.
They are, to a great extent, regarded as expendable.

Developed societies are, by their very nature, competitive. In
the UK, the distribution of wealth and access to resources is both
uneven and greatly inequitable. Death and taxation are very much
the only certainties: everything else, particularly employment for
life, is in a state of perpetual flux. Hence, people feel deeply
vulnerable and become prey to collective neuroses about perceived
threat, among which crime, and especially crimes against property,
rank high. The end result is increasing intolerance and a blood
lust for revenge against the wrongdoer.

The Labour government promised to be “tough on crime, tough on
the causes of crime”, but succeeded only in creating an explosion
in the prison population while doing nothing to address the issues
of deprivation and inequality that lie at the heart of much
antisocial behaviour. Prince Charles’ Prince’s Trust has now been
promised £50m a year of public money to help steer
disadvantaged young people away from crime and into constructive
activity. This may seem a lot, but it is little more than a drop in
the ocean, and likely to benefit only a small proportion of the
youngsters most at risk. More pertinently, policies and investments
to promote the welfare and well being of our young people are the
responsibility of government, not of charitable organisations,
however highly placed.

In the past decade, the prison population has increased from
some 44,000 to more than 70,000. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord
Woolf, recently stated that overcrowding has already reached
“intolerable” proportions, and warned of the very real risk of riot
and disturbance unless early measures are taken to reduce numbers.
He is pressing the judiciary to “confine the use of prison for
those offenders for whom there is no alternative”, but, to all
intents and purposes, there is no alternative.

The over-stretched national probation service has to concern
itself with control, punishment and public protection;
rehabilitation and support are bottom of the list. The criminal
justice system as a whole leans its great weight towards punishment
alone. There is a belief in the existence of a “criminal class”
which must, for the sake of society, be neutralised if not
eliminated. In such a climate, notions of reform, of rehabilitation
of the offender, receive short shrift.

In the early 1970s, I was deputy head of a large bail and
probation unit that also offered, when beds were available, parole
placements for long-term prisoners, many of whom were no more
capable than a small child of coping with a world they found
utterly intimidating. They were needy and fearful, inept in all
practical matters, required high levels of extended support to
maintain their freedom and often spoke of the temptation of
offending simply to gain re-entry into the safe “inside”.

Imprisonment enforces psychological adaptations on the
individual. While loss of liberty is the actual punishment, “doing
time” is supposed to give time for reflection upon one’s
wrongdoing. Long-termers have the benefit of knowing where they
will be for years ahead; short-termers are in limbo. They are
usually the perpetrators of petty offences to which the system
responds by using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, leaving their
already fragmented lives smashed to tiny pieces. They are the
drifters, the care leavers, the homeless, the inadequate, the
social casualties, who enter prison with little and emerge without
even notional support. Left to sink or swim, more often than not,
they sink.

In the probation unit, a high proportion of the young offenders
were graduates of a care system that to this day, persists in
failing countless thousands of youngsters. In the criminal justice
system need exponentially outstrips resources, yet for some young
offenders at least, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 should be
picking up the shortfall. There is not a word in that legislation
about support for prison leavers.

Alison Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child care
worker and the winner of the 1996 Community Care Readers’

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