A mixture of law, politics, autobiography and humour. Once described as "The Devilish Advocate"
(Guardian), I do have the ability to provoke a response. Sometimes it comes from someone who uses a thought process, and sometimes from jerks usually associated with the knee.
Recent events have brought the question of prisons back to the fore. As a former prison officer I wonder if prison is able to deliver either punishment or rehabilitation, and whether or not prison is the best answer to our troubles.
In the days and weeks that have followed we have been asking why it happened, how can we stop it from happening again and whether or not this was just simple criminality and opportunism or a sign of something deeper. The answer to those questions has been to lock ‘them’ up, make examples of them through tough sentences and for more robust policing. This has been greeted with the seal of public approval. In the short term this may seem to have quelled the fury on London’s streets, but I am not convinced that harsh prison sentences will do anything in the short or long term.
From my experience in the Prison Service I believe that we need to address an already-failing system. The prison population has doubled in size from 41,000 in 1991 to well over 86,000. This trend now seems set to grow.
Forty-three per cent of prisoners are repeat offenders, in and out of prison with their issues never being addressed. Ken Clarke, the justice secretary, surprisingly started off listening to prison governors on how we treat less serious crimes. But, given the sudden shift to the right on law and order, I will be interested to see if he will return to the familiar Conservative policy of just building more prisons.
I remember on my first day of training as a new prison officer, being told that prison was not a punishment – having their freedom taken away by the courts was the punishment – prison was there to rehabilitate. This was an ethos I held dear, but found frustrating as we did nothing to promote rehabilitation.
When I started at HMP Holloway, Europe’s largest female prison, in 2002 it was common for prisoners to spend up to 22 hours a day in their cells with little to keep them occupied. Visitors would be shocked at the level of noise, which would sound as if the prisoners were going mad in their cells. In the years that followed I saw reform and investment that had an effect on conditions and the way the prison was run. All of the cells got TV sets and staff levels increased, which allowed for activities, such as art lessons or gym. But is this rehabilitation? I agree with prison governors who say that, due to the short sentences that many prisoners receive, it is not possible for the prison system to be as constructive as it would like.
At a cost of £38,000 a year for each prisoner, I believe that there are more effective ways this money could be spent, such as drug rehabilitation, training or developing our industrial and service sectors so that there are jobs out there. These are long term solutions that I believe that we now need to promote more than ever.
I find it difficult to accept the view that the riots were just ‘mindless’ violence and ‘copy cat’ opportunism, which prison is going fix. I also believe that there’s more to the argument that they were due to an unequal society, which investment in deprived communities can fix. Throwing money at a problem tends to yield few results. The questions I think we should be asking is whether or not there is sufficient social mobility for those near the bottom to believe that they have the opportunities to bridge that gap and for hard-working, low-income families to feel their efforts are rewarded with an acceptable standard of living.
The reasons for the violence might be a combination of many things. For me, the demise of our industrial economy over the last 30 years, coupled with the fierce competition (not least from the ‘new’ communities) for jobs in the service and retail sectors, has given huge challenges to London’s working class, both black and white, to find pride in earning a living wage, to find affordable decent homes and to find inspiration in local communities that appear barren.
An already-struggling prison system in need of reform will not address the wider and long-term issues surrounding the riots. I hope that a much deeper debate on the underlying challenges that London faces with result in more than just superficial changes.
Josie Channer is Labour’s London assembly candidate for Bexley and Bromley