A Recipe for Disaster

I spent my first years in social work working for the probation service at a time when probation was still a part of social work. In my considered view it was a retrograde step when they severed the link between social work and offending behaviour. The vast majority of offenders I worked with had problems that were not just about offending; there were many who had mental health problems, and yet more who had drug and alcohol problems.

The politicians’ usual response to offending is so often to ratchet up the issues vying with each other to see who can provide the toughest response to the latest headline. Although I have always accepted that there are a number of people who should be locked up for the remainder of their lives, incarcerating a person rarely helps; it only provides society with a break. This break may be welcome for residents whose lives have been made difficult by antisocial behaviour, but it is unlikely to address the underlying issues that have led to the offending.

Prison: A Dumping Ground

Because prison is so frequently used it has becoming largely an institution of containment; its power to educate and reform has been lost. As the Prison Reform Trust put it in a report published last year:

Our prisons have become a dumping ground for those failed by other public services and the scale of the problem is now immense. Each year over 132,000 people go to jail and 70,000 children enter the youth justice system. According to the Department for Children, Schools and Families, during their school years a staggering 7% of children will experience their father’s imprisonment. Last year more children were affected by the loss of a parent through custody than by divorce. Our reliance on prison is such that it appears difficult for politicians to present a clear, authoritative case for alternatives to custody. (Prison Reform Trust 2008: 3)[i]

This startling assertion graphically illustrates the failure of the prison system; it also highlights the consequences for the rest of the family.

I am writing this article a few days after the publication of the Prison Reform Trust’s latest report [ii]on the remand of young people and the disturbing evidence not only of the number of young people being remanded in custody but more worryingly the numbers on remand that are ultimately going to be acquitted or be given a community-based sentence.

What Should be Done?

They mention Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 which states that prison for young people should be used “only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”. Despite this Government’s commitment to the Convention why do we as a country lock so many of our children and young people up?

The Trust report proposes a 12-point plan to address these issues including changing the bail law providing incentives for local authorities to reduce custodial remands and reducing the disproportionate number of black children locked up on remand. This plan is a good start, but it seems to me that it is only part of a wider debate that needs to recognise that many of the children and young people who are imprisoned are like many of the children in the care system in that they have complex and difficult histories that are at the core of their problems. What we also know is that a high number of adults in prison have been through the care system.

People are Complex Individuals.

On Saturday mornings I often listen to a radio programme called Saturday Live which has a slot called inheritance tracks, in which a celebrity talks about a track they have ‘inherited’ during their childhood and a track they would pass on. A few weeks ago the musician and actor Goldie talked about his childhood, part of which was in a children’s home and he vividly described how one day he discovered a record player in one of the rooms and also found a record, the Logical Song by Supertramp.

The first verse of the song has the following lyrics:

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily,
Joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.[iii]

When Goldie initially talked about the song, I turned up the radio, remembering the record with a very distinctive and catchy piece, which the music in some way hides the powerfulness of the lyrics, which I had never really thought about until this moment. In speaking about this one moment, Goldie talked about how in this one episode he kept putting the record back on, repeating it, crying and screaming remembering his past memories. Eventually he was so distraught he was carried out of the room in floods of tears kicking and screaming. What this little vignette graphically shows is the complexity of people’s actual experiences.

The Danger of Blanket Solutions

Merely concentrating on the presenting problem so often avoids the main issues. Politicians need to stand back from politics and have an open debate to explore the system, taking time out to look at the evidence and begin to start reducing the prison population, particularly for young people. Apart from a small minority who need to be imprisoned, prison does not work and in the case of young people it largely provides society with a ticking time-bomb of further antisocial and criminal behaviour.

Imprisoning somebody removes a person from their home area, provides them with an institutional experience and then dumps them back into the community they came from, a recipe for disaster.


[i] on Report 72 – unlocking community solutions to crime http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/subsection.asp?id=1260 (accessed 24/6/2009)

[ii] Penelope Gibbs & Simon Hickson Children: Innocent until proven guilty A report on the overuse of remand for children in England and Wales and how it can be addressed

http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/temp/children-innocentspuntilspprovenspguiltysp(report)(1).pdf (accessed 24/6/2009)

[iii] http://www.lyricsfreak.com/s/supertramp/the+logical+song_20133850.html see also http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00krgd0 (accessed 24/6/3009)

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