The Daily Telegraph
Rehabilitating prison inmates is ‘a fantasy’
Head of jail says the penal system cannot rectify bad behaviour caused by many years of failed social policy
The idea that the prison system can rehabilitate criminals is a “fantasy” because it cannot be expected to rectify bad behaviour caused by many years of failed social policy, the governor of HMP Winchester has said. James Bourke said prisons were successful in scaring white, middle-class people, but for others they were a “place of refuge”. He suggested the main purpose of custodial sentences should be punishment, as “everything else we have tried so far has not worked”.
REHABILITATION of criminals is a “fantasy” because the prison system cannot be expected to undo a lifetime of troubles in a few months, a leading official has said.
James Bourke, the governor of HMP Winchester, said Britain’s prisons may work in scaring white, middle-class people, but for others they can simply become a “place of refuge”. He suggested the main purpose of custodial sentences should be punishment, because no other form of sentence seemed to have an effect on offenders.
Speaking at the launch of Crime and Punishment, a new Channel 4 documentary series, Mr Bourke recalled having to regularly thwart bids from prisoners for day release while working at lower security prisons.
One inmate, jailed for causing death by dangerous driving, had asked to go home for Christmas, but lived several doors down from the grieving family of the man he had killed, Mr Bourke said.
He told an audience in central London: “People quite understandably want to see people punished if they have caused harm in their lives.
“Unfortunately, everything else we have tried so far has not worked. Imprisonment works in the sense it does punish people.
“They arrive with me after years of [problems] with their family, their education, their social services system, their healthcare, for a sentence of four or five weeks and I’m going to rehabilitate them? It’s a fantasy.”
Prisons have been plunged into crisis in recent years as officer numbers drop and the wings are flooded with destructive substances such as Spice.
HMP Winchester faced criticism last month after The Daily Telegraph published video of inmates causing chaos after digging their way through crumbling cell walls.
Mr Bourke continued: “I think the reality of prison is that it is designed by nice, white middle-class people and it works for nice, middle-class people.
“For any one of us in this room to go to prison would be a disaster, but what we have created is a group of people, a section of our community, who go to prisons and it is not a personal disaster – in fact it becomes a place of refuge.”
He claimed the rising cost of housing and higher education risked leaving behind swathes of the population to whom the prospect of prison offered stability, rather than punishment. His views were echoed by a senior Scotland Yard officer, who said jails were at risk of being modern-day “asylums”.
Rob Beckley, the assistant commissioner in charge of the Metropolitan Police investigation into the Hillsborough disaster, suggested a lack of frontline mental healthcare left the police and prisons to pick up the pieces.
He said: “There is something about the asylums that existed when I was a PC … to a certain extent I feel they have been changed for prisons.
“That is where the health policy and what we are actually doing with people who are not well in the community I think is a big area, where the police are ending up picking up the symptoms and passing it to the criminal justice system and not managing the process.”
Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, agreed it was “absolutely right” to say managing a jail had become like managing a “mental health institution”.
He said in recent inspections, “40, 50 or more per cent of prisoners” had some form of mental illness.
“It is a huge problem. What it’s indicative of, very often, is simply that there are insufficient resources to provide a proper therapeutic response whether in prison or outside of prison,” Mr Clarke added.
Just as Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledges to come down hard on crime and on criminals, a new documentary series on Channel 4 is about to lay bare the diabolical state of the entire criminal justice system. Crime and Punishment will show prison officers who suffer assaults every day, police officers traumatised by too many dangerous call-outs, and inmates, locked up for 23 hours at a time, off their heads on the synthetic psychoactive drug spice and rioting in protest at their conditions.
“The Ministry of Justice has suffered 43 per cent cuts to its budget since 2010 – that has consequences,” says Chris Henley QC, the outgoing chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, who appears in the series. Those consequences are writ large in Crime and Punishment, which is the first series ever to have access to the justice system from top to bottom, from the telephone operators deciding which calls to send officers to investigate, to the probation staff charged with managing convicted criminals as they re-enter society.
Olivia Pinkney, the impressive Chief Constable of Hampshire Constabulary, who has allowed cameras to follow her officers, says: “We get asked a lot to take part in ‘flashing blue light’ series, but we haven’t ever taken up those offers on my watch.”
The worry has always been that people working for the force would be filmed in situations where they were tired or stressed, when a short clip without context could be damaging, so it was important for Pinkney to trust the film-makers. She thinks transparency is essential, however, and says the public cannot learn about the police from watching TV dramas such as Line of Duty. She laughs when I suggest it is lauded for its accuracy.
“It’s lauded for being great telly. I wouldn’t say it’s lauded for being accurate. It’s nothing like what we do, not at all, far from it.”
Originally conceived by veteran producer and criminologist Roger Graef as a portrait of the justice system in crisis, Crime and Punishment took four years to reach the screen. Permissions had to be sought from all the different agencies, then signed off by the Ministry of Justice. Political upheavals played a role. “There were four justice secretaries in the span we were negotiating,” says Graef.
There were also high-profile “catastrophes”, including the decision to release John Worboys – the blackcab rapist, who had spent 10 years in prison for attacks on 12 women – which was later reversed, and the collapse of several rape trials following the failure of prosecutors to disclose evidence to the defence.
The series, however, takes a groundlevel view of the system, focusing on individuals on both sides of the fence. In one episode, a young prison officer at Winchester Prison contemplates whether to leave the profession after being assaulted. A senior officer sums up the crisis: “I’ve been in the job 27 years… the last two years are probably the worst I’ve ever seen. The public have no idea what our staff go through every day… What price do you put on being assaulted and having s--- thrown over you every day?”
“You will never have been in the shoes of the probation officers and the accused in the way this series shows,” says Graef. It will force the viewer to experience the dilemmas that they face every day: “What would you do if you were on the parole board and you’ve got a lifer who’s been in for 15 years, did a horrible crime and is really a bad man, but has taken all the courses and now listens to Radio 4 and reads The Telegraph, Guardian and The Times, who’s very plausible and smooth, but you know he’s been capable of really terrible stuff. Are you going to let him out and take the risk that, if he does it again, it’ll be your fault somehow?”
Those kinds of dilemmas are key to the opening episode, which features two prisoners who were given indeterminate sentences under the Imprisonment for Public Protection law (IPP), which was introduced by David Blunkett in 2003 and used by judges between 2005 and 2012. It was eventually abolished by Ken Clarke, who described it as a stain on the British justice system.
Originally intended to protect the public from about 600 dangerous prisoners who were likely to reoffend, it was soon being used to detain many more convicted criminals, with over 8,000 IPP sentences handed down by judges, 3,500 of which are still being served.
Shocking footage shows Aaron Harris – a fragile character who admits to being convicted for an extremely violent attack as part of a gang fight – displaying wounds to his leg that he has caused himself that will make many viewers blanch.
Paul Bousell received an IPP sentence as a 22-year-old, six years ago, after robbing a shopkeeper at knifepoint.
‘The last two years are probably the worst I’ve ever seen. The public have no idea what our staff go through every day’
He is clearly struggling to cope with the sentence – he would have served the normal tariff for the crime by 2015, he says – and has sometimes been a disruptive presence inside, in one case assaulting prison officers, as well as becoming a user of the drug spice.
We see both Harris and Bousell preparing for hearings, after which, if they fail to convince a parole board, they may be returned to custody for another 18 months before having any further prospect of release. It’s theoretically possible they will never get out of prison.
Chris Henley, a defence barrister since 1989, says he would release Bousell now. “How would you manage, how would I manage, sitting in a cell 23 hours a day with no idea when I might be released, seeing other people all around me being released, having been sentenced for more serious offences, receiving determinate sentences that were longer than my tariff?”
He says he can understand why Bousell would turn to the synthetic cannabinoid drug.
“How many of us have a drink each night? The frustration of dealing with those parole board hearings, you go back to your cell and you’re offered spice and you just want to numb [everything] out. Then, when you go back to the parole board, they say, ‘Well, you’re still taking spice…’ Well, of course he’s still taking spice.”
Crime and Punishment, Henley says, shows the crisis affecting courts, the inability of the police to respond effectively to crimes, the huge amount of unproductive time prisoners spend in their cells in understaffed prisons, and the lack of effective rehabilitation. He thinks, however, that the series could have a positive impact.
“I just hope that people realise that getting the Criminal Justice System functioning properly matters as much as health and education.”
The Prime Minister’s announcement of a partial reversal of earlier cuts, including funding for 20,000 police officers, is welcomed, although as Graef says, “it will take five years before it is back to operational efficacy”. Recruiting and retaining prison officers, for instance, has become increasingly difficult because of the conditions they now face.
As for the police, Olivia Pinkney points out, “No force has got their numbers yet, but we’re open for business, recruiting and ready for as many as we can get.”