Towards Closing Prisons

Like slaves in chains we still send criminals behind bars. Individuals who have done wrong, like we all have, must be given an opportunity, after judgement, to re-pay the victim and community for their offence. Most of them have committed crimes like debt-default, fraud, fighting, deception, impersonation, speeding, taking drugs or smuggling.  Putting them in cages, isolated from their family and surrounded by disturbed people is one step away from a coffin. Providing them with food, shelter, clothes and utilities is unlikely to inspire active citizenship. Locking them away for 23 hours in a cell may be punishment, but it probably won’t mend their ways. Encouraging them to study or work inside prison may put in place useful practice, but in such a closed environment the skill transfer is limited.

Evidence shows most prisoners re-offend. Most do not learn their lesson. Most create more victims and are let out to harm communities again – except this time they have better networks and inside knowledge of crime. Many have mental health problems. Many will be unable to find work and if they do, they will lose the post when their criminal record is uncovered. Many will be radicalised – feeling the system is taxed against them and they must tough it out. They invert logic: if the good guys are actually bad then killing becomes legitimate if you’re in a war frame of mind – ask George Bush or Tony Blair? Outcomes show prison does not work – today’s Caliphate is evidence.

An alternative blueprint is to operate up to 5000 small community improvement studios (CIS) around the country, whose aim is to be self-sufficient, ranging from specialist farming or market gardening centres to town and urban studios, where horticulture, sculpture, high quality social home building, fine food production and heritage schemes are practised around the notion of “making my neighbourhood better” through artisan craft standards.

About 10 – 20 offenders would be allocated to each studio, taking in up to 80,000 participants per year. The aims of the studios based on principles of

  • Improving estates, public spaces and community assets
  • Supporting restorative justice and the rehabilitation of offenders
  • Serving a range of sentence types, based on contract, from 2 hours per week for young people to 2 or 3 days per week for adults ensuring they keep in contact with family and education/work
  • Non-profit operations with a cost neutral target and an agreed reserve of £150,000 per studio per year (which can be built up as assets) – making a total cost of £750million each year.

We estimate the potential saving to the country of opening small artisan therapeutic centres in place of prisons could be about £500,000,000, during a transitional period, with further substantial savings in the future.

This will take time to evolve as the present system adjusts and officers are re-trained into more effective and positive work practices and environment. Each studio could be staffed with a therapist, at least one ex-prison officer, a skilled artisan and an assistant or apprentice. Their broad role is to improve community safety and the enhancement of the natural and built environment. Within the model there should be provision for ex-offenders to be either employed, or supported to set up their own artisan studio.