Time for radical action on our failing prisons

•Letter to The Guardian, 17 July 2015

Prisons can never provide “purposeful activity” for so many prisoners; the only way is to reduce their numbers. Here are two ways. A high proportion of people sent to prison lack skills; need help with reading, writing or numeracy; have mental health problems; are homeless – the list goes on. To enable them to live productive lives they need appropriate education, training, therapy and so on. But these are more difficult and expensive to provide in prison. The answer is to provide them outside. Where facilities exist in the community, offenders could be required to attend them; elsewhere, courses could be arranged in probation-run day centres, such as existed a few decades ago. These could also arrange restorative justice meetings for victims who want them. Michael Gove, the justice secretary, could pay for them with the money saved by cancelling the secure college and, let’s hope, the mammoth prison at Wrexham.
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Second, sentencing requires a complete rethink. Sentences are based on an attempt to quantify the seriousness of the crime, with no regard to the best way to prevent reoffending. The tariff is arbitrary: no sentence can be justified except by comparison with other sentences, and if they were reduced by, say, a sixth they would still be proportionate to each other. Finland progressively reduced sentence lengths over about four decades without affecting the crime rate. We could do the same.
Martin Wright
London       [More letters at http://www.gu.com/letters ]