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Thursday, September 08, 2011

Our penal system is far from broken

Our penal system is far from broken

Letters, Guardian

It's tempting for politicians to ignore uncomfortable realities when dealing with such serious disasters as the recent riots, but I cannot let Kenneth Clarke's explanation that these events are a direct result of "a broken penal system ... whose record of preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful" go unchallenged (Punish the feral rioters, but address our social deficit too, 6 September). The government's own published national statistics show, between 2000 and 2009, an overall 10.7% improvement in adult reoffending by ex-prisoners, with improvements of 25.6% in reoffending outcomes for those serving four years and over, 23% for those serving between two and under four years, and 12.4% for those serving between 12 months and under two years. Even the very short-term prisoners serving under 12 months, the majority of whom actually served less than 12 weeks in prison, showed a 6.5% improvement.

These results were gained through the dedicated and skilled work of prison staff of all grades from public and private sectors, supported by specialist health, education, probation and drug treatment staff. Over the same period, spending in real terms per prisoner stayed broadly steady and, though the prison population grew rapidly, the self-inflicted death rate, rate of escape, incidence of drug use and number of incidents of serious disorder were all reduced. So the improved reoffending results came with all-round improvements in effectiveness and efficiency. Not many public services can so clearly show real improvements on this scale. One might have hoped Ken Clarke would want to build on what has been achieved, not least because more is undoubtedly possible. But turning prisons and their staff into scapegoats to blame for more fundamental failings in our society and in broader social policy will only damage the morale of all who work in the system and convince them of the self-serving cynicism of politicians.

Phil Wheatley

Former director general of the Prison Service and the National Offender Management Service

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