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  1. Law
September 29, 2009updated 24 Feb 2017 9:26am

A Conversation That Changed My Life

By Spear's

Our prison system is failing. Long-time observer Peter Chadlington lays out a programme for reform that was born when he met one young offender
SO, THIS IS what it is like.In prison. In clink. Banged up. Fifteen years ago. I am eating my lunch with a thief. He is 25 years old or so. Well-built. Fish-eyed. Dressed in shapeless, light blue prison fatigues.

That unique prison smell assaults my nostrils. It seems to get under my skin. A dry, airless, stale aroma which I feel is almost sticking to me. Will it wash off when I get out?

I ask him why he had ended up here. ‘I steal cars,’ he said, deadpan in a flat monotone. ‘Another eighteen months to do.’


‘Saw my son yesterday. My girlfriend came in. Told me if I came back here again it would be the last time I saw him.’
My eyes brighten. ‘That’s some incentive to go straight!’ I retorted.

Another long pause. He was in no rush. Why would he be?

‘Don’t know’ he said. ‘My parents broke up when I was six. My mother put me into a school for unmanageable kids when I was ten. I ended up in Feltham for stealing cars. This is my third stretch in prison for theft. The food’s OK. I stay out of trouble. I can’t read. I can’t write. I’m not even that good at stealing cars!

‘No,’ he added with a shrug, ‘I think I will come back here. They look after me.’

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A sense of absolute hopelessness swept over me. In my mind’s eye, I saw this young man in 40 years’ time: an old man with a grey prison pallor, numerous stretches for incompetent crime behind him, and nothing to show for his life. His family and society had institutionalised him. A modern tragedy. A wasted life. We had all failed him.

That was my first visit to prison. I am no bleeding-heart liberal. There are plenty of prisoners who should be banged up for life and some who should never see normal society again. They are too dangerous. Actually, they are evil.

But there are too many of the other kind: young men and women for whom the circumstances of their lives — family breakdown, a lack of education, alcohol and drugs — having found themselves on the wrong side of the tracks early in their lives — have never been able to cross back again and society has not helped. We have a prison population of 83,000. But there are only cells for 74,000, so 20,000 prisoners are forced to share cells designed for one.

SO WHAT? THEY are in prison, for heaven’s sake. I am not suggesting they should be in a five-star hotel. But is it constructive for a young offender, who has committed a relatively minor crime, to be put in a cell with a loo in the corner — perhaps with a curtain surround — with one or two cellmates and locked up for twenty or more hours a day? Is that really going to help him go straight?

Sixty-eight per cent of those who go to prison — and about 90 per cent of young offenders — reoffend and come back for more, and even come back for more again. That may partly be because at the end of their stretch the majority are dumped outside on the street with £47 in their pockets, which has to last two weeks, their personal belongings on their back or in a black rubbish bag, with nowhere to go and no real support.

Worst of all, they probably have an alcohol or drug problem when they leave — even if they didn’t when they went in. So they will need money just to satisfy their craving, as well as for getting a roof over their head and food to eat. Nearly two-thirds of sentenced male prisoners and two-fifths of sentenced female prisoners are alcohol-dependent.

More than half those received into custody are problematic drug users. In many male local prisons and at Styal women’s prison, 80 per cent of new arrivals have class A drugs in their systems. During a recent visit to Wandsworth, I saw the work being done by a charity that was helping inmates come off their addictions, but they only help a handful of the 10,000 adult men who go through that prison every year.

The conversation with that young car thief scarred me. It changed me. Since I met him, I have devoted as much of my spare time as possible to working in prisons. One project has been to take groups of businessmen, politicians, actors and journalists to have lunch in one of London’s prisons to see the conditions for themselves.

Each individual is invited to make a £250 donation (which goes to the Howard League for Penal Reform) and we sit and break bread with prisoners on an equal footing to learn what prison life is like. (Email for more details.) I arrange these lunches (once or twice yearly) not because criminals should not be punished, but to ask the question: ‘Are we doing enough to reform, educate and deter?’

My own conclusion is that we are not. Making prisons larger and more modern, with better prison staff to educate and reform, will all help, but in the long term it will solve nothing. I was talking to a prisoner in Wandsworth who said, ‘The prisons would be virtually empty if there were no drugs and no alcohol.’

And he is right. The real curse is addiction. And locking people up who are addicted does nothing to help and does not address the cause of their crime. In 2008, nearly £80 million was provided for custodial drug treatment, out of a total prison budget of over £4 billion.

IF I WERE put in charge of prisons tomorrow, here are a few things I would do — immediately.

First, I would move money away from prisons to local areas where most of the prisoners live, spend it on managing offenders safely and investing in communities to prevent crime. The best rehabilitation takes place in effective local community schemes.

Second, I would replace short prison sentences with community-based responses and the engagement of voluntary mentors with young offenders. For serious, violent offenders, there is a role for custody — but it should be a normal environment with real employment at its heart. Prison for women is unnecessary — the very few dangerous women should be held in small secure units.

I would spend real money on drug education and addressing addiction issues. Virtually no public money is spent on reducing alcoholism among offenders, despite the high success rate of AA courses and other abstinence rogrammes.
I would make a real attack on prisoner illiteracy (at least a third of jail inmates cannot read or write at all) and offer proper skills training in prison workshops.

Finally, I would help every prisoner get started on a new life when they finish their sentence by offering what experts called ‘joined-up rehabilitation’ — practical assistance before and after release.

Helping young men like the one whose story I related is important to all of us who have been so much more fortunate in our childhood and in our adult lives.

There are some wonderful charities helping in this field — campaigning charities such as the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League for Penal Reform; drug rehabilitation charities such as RAPt (the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust) and, from its residential home, the Nehemiah Project has a 72 per cent success rate keeping graduates free from crime, drugs and reoffending; and educational and pastoral charities such as the Prisoners Education Trust, the New Bridge Foundation, and the Prison Advice and Care Trust (PACT). And they all need support — not just money but also personal involvement and time.

WHATEVER THE GOVERNMENT does, there will always be a gap in the practical work that could enable prisoners to change direction and lead new lives. That gap can only be filled by charities, volunteers and new supporters for this work. If we don’t do all we can to help, nobody will.

And there will be many more 25-year-olds — like that young man I met fifteen years ago for lunch — who will become just another institutionalised prison statistic.

Rehab Recovery is a free information service to help people who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction, and who may need alcohol rehab assistance.

Illustration by Vince Fraser

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