The ins and outs of the British prison system

As the UK’s general election looms closer, the Tory’s are using every Labour weak spot to secure votes. Their latest line of attack criticizes an ‘incompetent’ prison service. But what is the Tory’s solution?

It is a sad but true fact that Britain’s prisons are bursting, brimming with prisoners who are stretching penitentiaries to their full capacity. As a result, many of these establishments are struggling to cope. It is also a fact that the Resettlement Overnight Release (ROR) program, which allows convicts up to 100 days release from prison doing community service, has trebled in the past two years, allowing critics to surmise that the scheme is being exploited and used as a tool to ease prison congestion.

The ROR scheme has always been prone to causing controversy for releasing criminals who have not yet “done their time” among the public. Unfortunately, its critics have been proved right to a degree, as there have been several incidents where offenders, far from being rehabilitated, have re-offended whilst on release from prison. Figures taken from the Ministry of Justice have revealed that the program has, in recent months, seen a dramatic flood of licenses granted. This sudden surge, coming at a time when prisons are full to bursting, has led skeptics to refer to ROR as a “holiday break”, seeing it as an example of “incompetent management” and a contemptible solution to “freeing up” prison cells.

Supporters of ROR believe the program is an essential tool to help offenders reintegrate into society, which will aid them lead crime-free lives on the outside. The Prison Service has spoken highly of the release scheme for its ability to ease the transitional process, arguing that it is an important method of enabling offenders who are coming to the end of their sentence, to set up training, jobs and accommodation links when they are formally released. A Prison Service spokesperson told The Telegraph:

“Resettlement Overnight Release has been operating effectively for a number of years with robust eligibility criteria and rigorous risk assessment. Suitable prisoners are released for specific reasons towards the end of their sentences with measures in place to monitor them and recall them if necessary.”

The alleged failings in the program are being deplored by ROR critics who are using it is as bait to censure both the prison service and the Labour Government. Naming the scheme as ‘overnight resettlement’ has arguably left it open to disparagement, as it is rarely – as the name suggests – limited to just “overnight” release, a flaw which was immediately picked up by The Telegraph, who said that some inmates can spend up to one month at a time doing community service away from their prisons before they have served their sentences. The insistence that ROR is only available to “suitable prisoners” is also open to debate, and is what detractors of the scheme are mainly objecting to. The Telegraph also informed its readers of four serious and brutal incidents of criminals re-offending whilst being prematurely released into the public and “incompetently” monitored.

Whilst those who condemn the scheme are concentrating on the relatively few examples where the ROR has inexorably failed, there have been many incidents where allowing offenders to spend some time out of confinement has just as inexorably helped offenders. Michael Bradley’s brother is coming to the end of his five year sentence for crimes related to drugs in a prison in the North of England, and for the past few months has been spending time outside prison with friends and family. Bradley told RT:

“I think these releases have helped my brother immensely. He has been so nervous about coming out and integrating again, but now that he’s had smaller snippets of it, I don’t think the ‘big day’ will be quite as daunting. I can’t believe they’re saying that resettlement release is only being used to solve overcrowding problems.”

The Conservatives are lapping up the opportunity to use the sharp increase in the number of prisoners involved in the resettlement program and the relatively few, but no doubt devastating, examples of criminals committing crimes whilst on release, to refer to Britain’s prison service as having “incompetent management” and being yet another example of Labor blunders. Dominic Grieve, the shadow justice secretary told The Telegraph:

“While there is a case for allowing some prisoners to stay home overnight as they approach their release, in order to re-establish community links and aid their transition back into society, overnight release should never be used simply because of a lack of prison cells. The trouble is that Labour’s incompetent management has yet again brought prisons back to bursting point.”

Whilst figures supplied by the Prison Reform Trust this summer proved that two thirds of prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded, there is no actual evidence, only unproven surmises, that ROR is being used to alleviate overcrowded prisons. The Conservative’s solution to the problem is to build 5,000 more jail spaces, using the cash generated by selling city centre prisons from Victorian times, a resolution which has predictably led to a mound of criticism for its lack of practicality. Either way, Britain’s prison service has a fight on its hands, not only to reintegrate ex-prisoners into society without them slipping back into a life a crime, but also how to deal with the problem of overcapacity, which is pushing the system to the brink. Using the crisis as a tool to win over voters will surely not help ex-convicts avoid being locked up for a second or even third time, and once again taking up those precious prison spaces.

Gabrielle Pickard RT