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Opportunity Locks

Coalition Government’s ‘rehabilitation revolution’ fails to tackle repeat offenders

As Parliament begins to scrutinise the Punishment of Offenders Bill, a new Civitas report reveals that Government plans to cut re-offending and public expenditure by rehabilitating prisoners fail to deal with key problems. Bars to Learning, by Carolina Bracken, argues that the Government’s confused priorities mean that the prisoners most likely to re-offend on release are deliberately excluded from the reforms. The report shows that promises of penal reform have been made, and broken, many times before, and that current proposals will fail while the Government focuses on immediate cost savings. The report argues:

While many of its aims are entirely laudable, [the Government] betrays a naive ignorance of the many institutional structures that have long paralysed reform of offender learning.[p.11]

Short-term prisoners short-changed

Prisoners given custodial sentences of less than 12 months have the highest re-offending rate of any sentencing group. Nearly 60 per cent of short-term prisoners are re-convicted within a year of release. This is due to the lack of effective rehabilitation programmes in prison for short-term prisoners and that they receive no supervision from the probation service on release.

But the Government’s proposed solution to this problem merely papers over the cracks, offering only literacy and numeracy courses that will not help this group find work on release or address their underlying needs:

[W]hile the [Government] recognises the unsuitability of short-term prisoners for many rehabilitative interventions, it makes few suggestions as to how to overcome these difficulties. More concerning still, ‘Making Prisons Work’ proposes to target short-term prisoners with ‘intensive literacy and numeracy provision’. It is difficult to reconcile this approach with the paper’s acknowledgement that an educative diet of functional skills alone is insufficient to achieve effective rehabilitation through employment. (p. 26)

Rehabilitation – only for the well-behaved?

The Government pledges to place ‘hard work and training’ at the heart of prison culture. But, paradoxically, training will only be available for ‘offenders who have been punished and show a willingness to reform’. This eligibility criteria will inevitably lead to ‘rehabilitative selection’, deliberately allowing some offenders to slip through the net. Yet it is precisely these excluded prisoners who are at the highest risk of reoffending:

Whether it is because they are sentenced to a too short period of custody, because they fall outside Payment by Results incentives, or simply because the ‘working prison’ fails to provide a sufficient number of jobs, the very offenders who require the most intensive and individually targeted intervention are those most likely to slip through the net. (p. 42)

If these high-risk offenders are excluded from employability schemes, the Government’s assertion that prison is less effective at reducing reoffending for certain groups of prisoners will continue to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Churned prisoners lose training track

Half of all incomplete prison education courses are due to offenders being released or transferred between prisons. Many transfers happen suddenly and unpredictably. This prematurely terminates useful skills training and has unfairly penalised training providers whose targets include a successful completion rate.

The Government’s proposal, to have regional clusters of prisons offering similar courses, fails to eliminate this problem, since the churn of prisoners spreads across the whole prison system. This means that, without reform, there will always be a large number of prisoners being transferred between prison clusters who will continue to lose out on their educational training:

Recent policy initiatives have recognised this churn as problematic, however the proposed remedy treats only the symptom, rather than the cause. (p. 25)

Employment mistargeted

The report points out that, up until now, prison education has been marred by an arbitrary distinction between ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ subjects, and a Key Performance Target (KPT) that requires 80 per cent of courses delivered to be core subjects. This means that useful vocational courses have been forced off the menu in favour of certificates of basic skills that offer no obvious path to future employment. One provider summed up the perverse consequences of the need to focus on government targets:

Giving evidence to the Skills Committee, contract manager of prison education at City College Manchester, Merron Mitchell, gave a description of how KPTs impact prisoner learning: ‘[M]y saddest day was walking into a prison and seeing on the door of a classroom ‘KPT class’. I went in and asked the people what were they learning and they said, ‘KPT’. They did not know what it was but they knew the governor had to get KPTs…Whether you needed KPT or not, you were in it.’ (p. 20)

While the current batch of targets is now set to be reformed it is unclear how future perverse incentives will be avoided. It will be virtually impossible to create sufficient employer-led work placements in custody. The resulting risk is that prisoners left out of work schemes will continue to be pushed into inappropriate, and ultimately unhelpful, courses in order to satisfy new targets.

Groundhog day at the MoJ?

The latest reforms hardly constitute the much acclaimed rehabilitation ‘revolution’. In 2004, ‘The Offender’s Learning Journey’ trumpeted that ‘[t]he delivery of learning and skills for offenders is one of the Government’s key priorities’. Two years later, the Government reaffirmed that it was ‘fully committed to developing a culture within prisons in which education and skills are a priority’.

In 2005, the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee condemned prison education provision and warned: ‘The very worst thing that the Government could do would be to define a prisoner’s needs and then not deliver the necessary programmes.’ Yet this is exactly what seems to have happened. Under current proposals, the Government risks this history of penal reform repeating itself.

Contact details:

Civitas on 020 77996677

Notes for Editors

i. Carolina Bracken is a Civitas research fellow. She has previously worked in witness care for the Crown Prosecution Service.

ii. Bars to Learning: Practical Challenges to the ‘Working Prison’ can be downloaded below.

iii. Committee scrutiny of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is set to begin on Tuesday 12th July. More information about the bill is available here.

iv. Civitas is an independent social policy think tank. It has no links to any political party and its research programme receives no state funding.


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