Pamela Dow is Director of Strategy and Development at Wandsworth Reform Prison. That means she decides what the prison will do with its money and prisoners. Before that job, she was Director of Strategy for the Ministry of Justice. That meant she influenced what the government did with prisons and funding for prisons.
Pamela has been reading the discussion on the blog and has responded to some of your comments!
Dear Burnet News Club members,
Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to your blog.
I have spent a long time thinking about your questions as they were important and interesting. I wanted to make sure I answered them as fully as possible. This has been a difficult few months in the UK's prisons, and you will have seen a lot of news reports about our criminal justice system. While I am sad about the circumstances that have led to this, I am glad that people are talking about crime and punishment. I think it is everyone’s duty to care about justice, and care about whether our prisons are safe, decent and effective. Most people have a view about teachers and schools, and doctors and hospitals. Our courts and prisons and the people who work in them should be no different.
Thank YOU for caring, and taking the time to think about all the complicated issues involved.
Faringdon Community College had a question about whether electronic tags are more effective than a prison sentence, which is very topical. You are absolutely right that an ankle GPS tracker worn while living and working in the community is cheaper than accommodation in a jail community. For some people who commit crimes it is definitely the right solution. However, it's worth going right back to the reasons prisons exist at all, and this might help answer Mission Grove Primary School's excellent question.
We justify prisons in four ways:
The first is as a deterrence. That means prisons prevent people committing crime because they know their freedom could be taken away, and has been taken away from some people. It's tricky to prove how effective prison as a deterrent is because you can't count crimes that haven't been committed! But this seems to make sense.
Do you think an electronic tag has the same result? In some cases they are effective because people are ashamed to wear them, or they can stop people from going to places where they commit crime. For example, an alcoholic who is only violent or only steals things when drunk could be restricted from going to pubs by their tag. Can you think of some crimes and criminals where a tag wouldn't be a deterrent though?
Secondly, they keep us safe by removing violent people from society. This seems like the most obvious reason for prison. The most important role of the Government is to protect us from violence or physical harm. GPS trackers wouldn’t be suitable for punishing terrorists or serial murderers, for example. Fortunately there are very few of them.
The third reason for prison is 'retribution' or punishment. Victims of crime and their families want to see that justice is done, and the people who have caused them harm suffer in some way. It is often said that people are sent to prison AS a punishment, not FOR punishment, and this is a belief on which our prison policy is based. Other countries have a different approach, and prisons in these countries are terrifying and foul places.
Some victims of crime would be content to see the person who had hurt them serve a community sentence with an electronic tag, but others would not. Try to think about being a victim of different types of crimes yourself, and whether you would feel safe or fairly treated by different types of sentences.
The final justification for prison is the most important in my view: rehabilitation. This is I think the most relevant to your questions. Most people who commit crimes have in some way broken away from any kind of positive, supportive, community. Often the best way to help them back in is to give them the chance to find three things: something to do, somewhere to live, and people to like and love.
For some people, only prison can do that, because their lives have become so chaotic. For others they can find those three crucial things while remaining outside prison, wearing a tag to show they have committed a crime and are being given a second chance. The difficult challenge for all of us is to work out how we can make sure rehabilitation is effective in the community. While the GPS tracker may be cheaper than prison, the many human beings needed to support the person wearing it aren’t cheap: the prisoner needs education and new skills to find a legal way to make money, they need a place to live and a job, they may need help to stop drinking too much or using drugs, or to be good dads or mums.
I hope that is a very thorough answer to your much shorter question. In summary, I agree that electronic monitoring can be effective, but only for some people and it is not necessarily cheaper if we want to help rehabilitate people properly!
Graveney School members made an important point about understanding why prisons don't prevent over 40% of people who go to them from committing more crimes when they get out. They also asked whether the money the Government has just announced should go to prisons or other public services. It's worth having a look at the amount of money that does get spent on prisons compared to other things like hospitals or schools or the army. You might still think that money is 'flooding' in to prisons, or you might be surprised at the pie chart - I won't make any comment other than provide the link! https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/budget-2016-documents/budget-2016
It is definitely the case that money spent on preventing crime is better than money spent on prison. For example, a lot of people in prison can't read or write, or grew up in care homes. That's why you'll see the pie chart section for education and social services is large, because the government recognises the need to help at an earlier stage.
Burnet News Club members at Quay Academy asked a brilliant and simple question - why do people commit crime when they know prison is so awful?! I am afraid I don't have an easy answer to that question though some of what I have said above may help. One thing it is worth thinking about is how we make choices. I hope you all go on to study the idea of 'agency' as it has been written about for thousands of years by philosophers and is probably the most important and constantly relevant question to our species and civilisation.
Is an 18 year old who steals to buy drugs making the same conscious choice as the 35 year old who steals to pay off debts?
Are people who get in a fight while drunk making the same choices as people who plan to hurt someone they bear a grudge against?
Should our justice system make a distinction?
Those of you who are interested in robots and artificial intelligence may enjoy taking this question to another level - can a robot be blamed for a crime? Would a very advanced robot make calculated choices about the chance of being caught and the awfulness of prison?
I don't have the answers, but these issues are all worth thinking and talking about.
Finally, I was very pleased to read your thoughts on library books. You covered many of the important issues about why prison libraries are so important and also what risks we should be aware of, e.g. violent stories. Crampton Primary School pupils are right to say that education is the most important part of rehabilitation within a prison. Learning to read and reading to learn unlocks minds and gives people the chance to be the authors of their own life stories.
Thank you again for inviting me to be a guest blogger, and for sharing your thoughts and questions. Good luck and keep on thinking, reading, learning and debating!
Strategy and Development Director,
Wandsworth Reform Prison