On Sunday Alan Duncan got some stick from the Mail and its readers about his comments to a prison conference in Oxford. He is quoted as saying that the phrase “prison works” was ‘repulsively simplistic’, the article doesn't explain the context of this remark so the criticism of him may well be grossly unfair.
I don't pretend to be an expert on prisons or the criminal justice system but my work on Project Daedalus has given me an insight into the youth justice system. Reading the article made me ask myself if I believed that prison works and I have to agree with Alan Duncan that the question is far too simplistic for a yes or no answer.
The levels of repeat offending and the fact that we incarcerate a higher proportion of our population than any other European country shows that in terms of rehabilitation and deterrent prison doesn't work.
Prisons are designed to take criminals out of circulation and help protect the public. While someone is in prison they cannot commit crimes, cannot rob people, break into houses or mug someone, on that level prison does work. But people don't stay in prison forever, indeed with the current government's attitude towards sentencing and early release they don't stay in prison for very long so on this measure we can only count a partial success.
Prisons have an invaluable place in terms of punishment of offenders and protection of society, but they currently fail badly in terms of deterrent and rehabilitation. They are also very expensive.
It costs many thousands of pounds per month to keep someone in prison, during that time we also have their undivided attention. If we don't use that period of incarceration to get them out of the criminal habit we will have wasted a lot of money and unique opportunity.
So, do prisons work? Not at the moment, but they could and an incoming Conservative government needs to make sure that they do.