By Christopher Zoukis
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has offered a far-reaching proposal for improving what he describes as the “scandalous” failure of the English and Welsh prison system. Calling his plan the biggest overhaul to the national corrections system since the Victorian era, Cameron said he is the first prime minister to speak on the problem in several decades.
In a Feb. 8 speech to the London-based think tank Policy Exchange, he called for reforms that would not treat prisoners as liabilities to be controlled, but rather as “potential assets to be harnessed.” Cameron painted in stark terms the problems plaguing the UK prison system, saying its levels of violence, drug use, self-mutilation and suicides “should shame us all.”
Official statistics for last year show the over-85,000 prison population of correctional facilities in England and Wales accounted for more than 14,000 inmate assaults on other prisoners, nearly 600 serious assaults on prison staff members, thousands of self-mutilations, and 89 suicides. In addition, about 32% of former prisoners are convicted of further offenses after being released. A recent report by the UK’s chief prison inspector conceded adult prison conditions had worsened since 2010.
Improving prisoner education holds a key role in Cameron’s reform plan, which calls for closer government ties with private teacher training and support groups, such as TeachFirst, to draw newly graduated teachers into working in national prisons. That effort will be headed by a former education minister and member of Parliament, from the Liberal Democrat party rather than Cameron’s Conservative party.
His support of prison education programs in UK prisons is refreshing, albeit a bit stale. It should come as no surprise that prison education is a smart crime control policy and also the most cost-effective, proven method that we currently know of reducing recidivism rates. Yet both the UK and U.S. prison systems have ignored the significant benefit of prison education. This isn’t merely a recidivism reduction benefit, but also a public safety and corrections spending benefit.
The prime minister also said his government will accept recommendations on prison education that will be made in a government-commissioned study of education in adult prisons. The report of that public-private review panel is due this spring. Cameron’s plan also calls for giving juvenile detention facilities the leeway to adopt new educational measures.
The proposal, which will be spelled out in greater detail in a bill to be introduced in Parliament, would within the next five years give half of all 121 current penal facilities complete autonomy in their budgets and operation, while their performance on such rehabilitation factors as recidivism, literacy and finding employment would be publicly ranked. Further, by the end of this year, Cameron’s plan calls for transforming six as-yet-undesignated correctional facilities into pilot program “reform prisons.”
Other provisions of his plan would make deportation of foreign prisoners faster and easier, move towards satellite tracking of prisoners allowed to spend part of the week outside prison, and direct the government to work with communications companies on technology to block signals into prisons, as a way to disable cellphones smuggled into prisoners.
In announcing the plan, Cameron said he would fight to make sure the corrections system current £130 million budget is not reduced. As a way to improve ex-offenders’ chances of gaining employment, he also voiced support for “ban the box”-type restrictions that would prevent employers from asking job applicants in the early stages of the hiring process whether they have a criminal history.
If we could once set aside our need for retribution and instead focus on fixing those in our prison systems, we could divert billions of dollars from corrections and back into important social services such as education. Better yet, we could reduce crime and victimization. Lives could literally be saved through the vehicle of correctional education.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com