Safer prisons as a reflection of a safer society

Crime and punishment may not be as high on the agenda of most political parties for this election, but important issues remain open for debate, writes Dr Karen Slade.

The reason for the lower prioritisation for this election may be because, accordingly to key metrics, crime has been falling through successive governments. Paradoxically, although crime was falling, prison numbers in both England & Wales and in Scotland remain as two of the highest rates in Europe.

Party promises around prisons can often focus on ‘who can sound toughest on crime’ but are also likely to include promises around improving rehabilitation – and here is the paradox. The main issue? Sending someone to prison fractures their life, and their families, isolating them from positive influences as well as negative ones. Prisons are also dangerous places that have negative consequences on physical and mental health, may increase a sense of being splintered from society and having a knock-on effect for those on first-time and short sentences of an increased risk of crime.

The second issue? People are complex, and life change takes time, requiring supportive intervention and integration, both with society and across services. However, prisons are fighting uphill and translating truly effective rehabilitation practice into prisons is an intricate process, requiring a positive, co-ordinated environment to encourage change – sadly, there are signs that prisons are becoming less healthy places to undertake effective rehabilitation.

Recently, a group of cross-party MPs on the Commons justice select committee raised concerns about the rising rate of suicide and violence within prisons in England and Wales. This brought into focus an issue which has long been known within the walls, but is rarely discussed as part of the punishment agenda. The reasons for the rise are still unclear, but we can focus on related issues: prison numbers remain high with sentences getting longer; mental health rates remain high with diversion schemes requiring further development; and the increasing separation of service provision with the potential for splintered working practices.

In a recent paper we demonstrated that a sustained reduction in suicide was most likely to occur within a positive environment where professionals across prison and health services collaborate actively and flexibly, able to respond and make joint decisions across a wider context and appreciative of the complexity of their clients. It therefore remains important to consider the implications on the context when making decisions on the operation of prisons.

Why should we care?

Because prisons reflect the standards that we apply to society more broadly – what does it say if we allow environments to develop which are harmful? What is required are clear messages on the priorities with consideration of the context and the practice – a mixed rhetoric around punishment, rehabilitation and care is confusing and this clarity is necessary if we are to have a consistent, effective and safe prison system.

Dr Karen Slade
Senior Lecturer in Psychology
School of Social Sciences
Nottingham Trent University

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