April 8
Does prison work? David Munro, Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey, and Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, were the speakers. Thirty five people attended the debate where two excellent speakers introduced the topic of Does Prison Work? David Munro, Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey, told us there are five adult prisons in Surrey. Of these five prisons unusually two are women's prisons at Send and Bronzefield and three are men's at Coldingley, Downview and Highdown. The latest figure available for the number of prisoners was 2,612 and there is a maximum capacity of 2,700. The worst of the overcrowding in the prisons has been overcome. Of these 2,612 prisoners only around 400 are from Surrey. Reoffending rates are high, at least 40%. A quick calculation put the cost of a police officer at £50,000 a year and the cost of a prisoner at £100,000. Less than half released prisoners have somewhere to go. The others will sofa surf, stay with reluctant parents or become homeless. David has put as a priority providing more accommodation for ex-offenders. In Woking the York Road project is one of the charities working with him. He acknowledged we need better conditions in prisons. The prison service is aiming to put a telephone into every cell with suitable security. More autonomy is being given to prison governors and more money is now being put into them. Rehabilitation needs to start from day one. In the UK we lock up more people in prison than any other Western European country as a proportion of the population. Yet the system does deal with some very wicked people and once in prison it is difficult to get out of the system. David is impressed by the people working for the probation service who are often firm but maintain an idealism. Andrew Neilson, the director of Campaigns at the Howard League started with a brief history of the organisation. It was established in 1860 by John Howard, a High Sherriff who had himself been a prisoner in Napoleons jails. It's present chair is Eoin McLennan- Murray, until recently the Governor of Coldingley Prison. 85,500 people are currently prisoners in England and Wales. This figure has doubled in the last 20 years while the length of sentences has increased by a third. Many prisoners have a multitude of problems. Of the general public 5% have two mental illnesses, among prisoners 70% do. The two biggest offences prisoners are in for are violence against the person and sexual violence but one in five women are in for default on fines. Three in four prisons are overcrowded with prisoners doubling up in cells built for one person or trebling up in cells intended for two. From 2010 to 2014 the number of prison officers fell by 41%. They are now trying to increase the number but there are problems with recruitment and retaining staff. More and more prisoners sit in their cells doing nothing. Prisons have become increasingly violent. Assaults have increased by a third and on staff by 40% in the past year. Self harm has doubled in the last ten years and over a quarter of these cases are by women. There were 119 attacks in 2016, the highest number ever. There have been 20 already this year. There is a river of crime which sweeps people into deeper currents. Among short sentence criminals up to two thirds reoffend. A report on Highdown Prison out last week found that there were no significant changes as a result of it becoming a Reform Prison. Since the capacity has been reduced to 200 problems have continued and violence to staff has doubled. The key question is what do we want the purpose of prisons to be? There are tensions between the public desire for retribution and the desire for rehabilitation. The discussion was then opened to the floor. The first contributor was enraged. We could have been having the same discussion 200 years ago. Reoffending rates are up to 60%. We need to adopt the Swedish model where in open prisons inmates go out to work, pay taxes and come back at night. Other points made were how much room for manoeuvre does the Police Commissioner have considering the views in the media. The Police Commissioner acknowledged that all politicians are obsessed by the media. In Surrey the second most read paper is the Daily Mail after the Times. The fact is that politicians need to be reelected to be effective. At Brixton Prison the Clink offers high quality meals to the public prepared and served by prisoners who acquire useful skills when they are released. Highdown prison does the same. Punishment and rehabilitation need to be more tailor made to suit the individual which is more easily done on probation rather than in prison. The Howard League supports community sentencing because it can cater for individuals. Prisons have three levels of regime, basic, standard and enhanced. Prisoners used to come in on the standard regime and so could go up or down but now all come in at the basic level. There has been a huge reduction in dealing with children through the criminal system. It was suggested we need an up to date workhouse where people in need could go and could serve as an alternative for the desperation people get into when they offend to be readmitted into prison. This was not favoured by the speakers who thought any institution does end up institutionalising people. Are prisons a deterrence? Maybe as a concept but most people when committing crimes are not rational and not in control of their behaviour. The Police Commissioner is examining the effectiveness of restorative justice when the victim and offender meet together to ensure it is cost effective. Recent work has shown that as people we are hard wired to desire punishment but also to forgive. In early societies there is evidence that people would be ostracised from the group and left to fend for the self but would eventually be brought back into the group. The collection raised £98 towards the costs of the debate.

David Munro answers questions, watched by Andrew Neilson and debate chair Irene Ridgeon.