“More prisons are not the answer to crime” says Cardinal

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Delivering the 2006 Prisoners’ Education Trust Annual Lecture at 7.30pm on Wednesday, April 26th 2006, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor said that he totally disagrees with the view that the only way to deal with crime is to have more prisons and to lock people up for a longer period of time.

Instead, he called for much greater priority to be given to the proper education and rehabilitation of prisoners and for more use to be made of alternative means of punishment.

Extracts from the speech delivered at The Old Hall, Lincoln’s Inn, London:

“There is the capacity, in even the most dangerous criminal, for remorse and rehabilitation. God’s mercy and power are always on offer and always potent. Everybody can be redeemed, which is why our penal system must provide opportunities for reform and rehabilitation at every stage for all those in its care rather than the mere ten per cent who at present complete programmes accredited with being effective in reducing re-offending. These words of mine are not founded upon a naive optimism about human nature but on the sovereignty of God’s grace and that there is in every human being an obligation to realise their own nature and fulfil their purpose. This means that there is a possibility of change for everyone. Thus within a penal system, resources, human, material and educational, must be available to every prisoner to support and enable their development and rehabilitation. It should also recognise individual transformation when it does occur and the duty to receive offenders back into society when they have convincingly reformed.”

” True justice must produce a positive outcome for the victim, for society and for the offender. It must be possible within a penal system for an offender to make different choices from those that they have hitherto made and the system must make it possible for that transformation to take place and be assisted at every point during the offender’s sentence and life thereafter. Our present penal legal system is a long way from meeting such a description. The prison system has reached its highest ever recorded number of prisoners and is now stretched to breaking point. The terrible over-crowding only underscores the extent to which our penal system is, in practice, essentially punitive. I think we need to rectify that tendency. There should, of course, be greater concern for the victim and for the victims of crime; we need more emphasis on restorative justice, which gives victims of crime the opportunity to participate in the administration of justice and which obliges offenders to make amends to the victim and the community.”

FULL TEXT OF LECTURE:

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I feel privileged to speak to you this evening on a subject that is very near to my heart, namely, the Christian approach to punishment and prison. I say this because during my nearly thirty years as a Bishop I have visited many prisons and ascertained something of the conditions within prisons and their effectiveness, not only as places of punishment but of places of redemption. In my former Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, I used to go regularly to Prisons, such as Ford Prison – an open prison – or the more recently established Downview and High Down in Banstead. Here in London I have been to Feltham for young offenders, to Wormwood Scrubs, to Pentonville, and a number of others. How then do we treat victims of crime? Do we treat convicted criminals with the human dignity which is always there, and do we believe in the real possibility of human change and transformation of prisoners? What is the place of prison in the 21st century? I cannot deal within this next half hour with the whole situation of prisons. Nor can I deal with the important issues of the needs of the victims of violence. There have been so many reports written about them. All I can do this evening is to highlight certain aspects of prison life which seem to me to be in grievous need of attention.

First of all, let me rehearse for you some of the facts about prison today. In 2004 the prison population in England and Wales reached its highest ever recorded level. That population stood at 75,544, an increase of nearly 3,000 over the previous year. It has almost doubled from the 1991 figure of 42,000. The number of women in prison has risen dramatically. Ten years ago the female prison population was 1,800 and in March 2004 it was 4,549, an increase of 151%. The rate of imprisonment of black people is now seven times that of the white population. The number of juveniles has doubled over the last decade. The number of elderly men over the age of 60 has trebled since 1995. At the end of the decade the Home Office projections predict a prison population of anything between 91,000 and 109,000.

What is the result of this? First of all, it’s terrible over-crowding. By the Government’s own admission, 82 of the 139 prisons in England and Wales are officially designated as over-crowded. Some 17,000 prisoners, 23% of the prison population, were recently revealed to be doubling up in cells designed for one. Shrewsbury-Preston Prison was recently holding 625 prisoners in cells designed to hold 324. Of the 12 new prisons opened in the last ten years, nine of them are already over-crowded. As a result, record numbers of inmates are committing suicide, drug use is widespread, and purposeful activity such as education, employment or exercise for each prisoner is declining. Many prisoners are still locked up for most of the day.

Public money is going into expanding rather than improving the prison system. Over-crowding means individual prisoners have cuts in their access to prison education and in programmes to reduce re-offending. More prisoners are placed far from home, with a deleterious impact on family relationships. Over-crowding is such in some prisons that prisoners are forced to defecate in front of one another. And on some prison wings, slopping out has been brought back. Frankly, our prisons, as many Chief Inspectors of Prisons have pointed out in their reports, are becoming a public disgrace.

The cause of this is tougher sentencing by Magistrates and Judges in response to the Government’s more prescriptive sentencing guidelines and a climate of increased public intolerance. This is often fed by rhetoric from politicians and irresponsible media reporting. It is a fact that the number of offenders arrested, cautioned and appearing before the Courts, has remained relatively constant and there has not been any increase in the over-all seriousness of offences brought to justice. Yet more people are being sent to prison and for longer. This increased severity is a peculiarly British phenomenon. In comparison with our European neighbours it is unedifying. This country has 141 prisoners for every 100,000 of our population, far higher than the majority in Western Europe. Holland has 100, Germany has 98, France 93, Denmark 64. There are more life-sentence prisoners in England and Wales today than the whole of the rest of Western Europe added together. Yet there is no evidence of a higher homicide rate in the U.K. than in other Western European countries. I think these developments are alarming for two reasons. The first is that there is no sign that this increased severity is making our country better or safer. It is a fact that some 50% of all prisoners are re-convicted of a further offence within two years of leaving prison (and this figure is even higher for young prisoners: 72% for 18 – 20-year olds and 84% among those under 18). Released prisoners, it is estimated, committed at least a million offences a year, and the cost to the Nation is eleven billion a year, according to the Government’s Social Exclusion Unit, and that is on top of the annual three billion which the prison system costs our society, which is an increase of 900 million in the past seven years. This, I suppose, leads to the inescapable conclusion that prison doesn’t work. It is true to say that secular campaigners and policy makers have addressed these issues and the need for society to achieve a just balance between the respective needs of victims of crime, offenders’ families and the wider community. There have been a number of reports over the past five years which have looked at the practical questions of policy and endeavoured to find solutions.

I cannot deal with all the issues regarding prisons but would like to concentrate this evening on two areas of concern. The first is the role of education and the second is about alternative means of punishment and rehabilitation. At the heart of what I want to say is an understanding of the innate dignity of every human person. I believe, as a Christian, that a human being is never a ‘closed’ or ‘determined’ entity. There is a proper freedom that belongs to everyone, which is the source of our moral status, our creativity, and the grounds of our responsibility to guard ourselves and other human beings. To help us exercise that freedom properly and act morally, we are all constantly offered God’s help, God’s grace. This is present in every human being and there is the capacity, in even the most dangerous criminal, for remorse and rehabilitation. God’s mercy and power are always on offer and always potent. Everybody can be redeemed, which is why our penal system must provide opportunities for reform and rehabilitation at every stage for all those in its care rather than the mere ten per cent who at present complete programmes accredited with being effective in reducing re-offending. These words of mine are not founded upon a naive optimism about human nature but on the sovereignty of God’s grace and that there is in every human being an obligation to realise their own nature and fulfil their purpose. This means that there is a possibility of change for everyone. Thus within a penal system, resources, human, material and educational, must be available to every prisoner to support and enable their development and rehabilitation. It should also recognise individual transformation when it does occur and the duty to receive offenders back into society when they have convincingly reformed. All of this is why Pope John Paul in the year 2000 said, “I especially ask law-makers throughout the world to re-think the prison system and the penal system itself in order to make it more respectful of human dignity in accord with a justice that redeems the offender and not only repairs the disorder caused by crime. Those who have made mistakes must be helped to begin a process of moral redemption and personal and community growth for their effective return to society”.

It is true to say that education has improved significantly in recent times. There has been an increased focus on numeracy and literacy. The Prime Minister has said that he hopes that increased investment in prison education will double the number of educational qualifications achieved by prisoners by the end of next year. The two most widely available programmes of education are the enhanced ‘thinking’ skills and reasoning and rehabilitation which are designed to develop thinking skills, social perspectives and moral reasoning. In recent times, the effectiveness of these programmes has been questioned and the prison service has been disappointed and, as a result, has cut the target for such programmes and diverted resources to drug treatment courses.

We should beware, mind you, of seeing such programmes of education through a purely utilitarian lens. Do you remember a novel by Charles Dickens called, Hard Times? The novel opens with an episode in Mr. Gradgrind’s Coketown school, in which he declares, What I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the lives of reasoning animals upon facts, nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle upon which I bring up my own children and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to the facts, Sir. Dickens contrasts this view of education, namely facts, with the vitality and exuberance of Mr. Sleary’s Circus. In many ways, the saddest sentence in the whole book is when Gradgrind speaks to his young daughter and tells her, Louisa, never wonder. Louisa, of course, wishes to explore the beauty and wonder of human existence and one of the most poignant episodes is when she squeezes through a loop-hole in the circus tent, which is truly to be seen as a loop-hole in her father’s impoverished view of the world and, in the circus, she discovers in contrast to her father’s philosophy, that all is wonderful and beautiful.

It is important, perhaps more so than anywhere else, for education in prison to move beyond things and facts. True education also involves the ability to engage in the pursuit of truth and wonder and to use the imagination. Again and again, it has been pointed out that to construct education and training plans, one needs individual assessments. Progress in prison education is from a pretty low base line because half of all prisoners are at or below the level of an eleven-year-old in reading, two-thirds in numeracy and four-fifths in writing. One other aspect of the education difficulties in prison is compounded by the over-crowding crisis. This means that there is a constant juggling with inmates to make places available and significant numbers of prisoners are moved from one prison to another. In 2003 there were some 100,000 such transfers and this means, among other factors, that education of prisoners who may have been making good progress in one programme, find themselves in another prison, which has a different programme and thus their education is dislocated. Yes, I think there is a need to develop within the present system better education adapted to prisoners’ needs. As our Catholic Bishops said in 2001, “With prison populations rising fast and rates of re-offending on release very high, is there not an urgent need, without compromising public safety, to consider how best to educate and rehabilitate prisoners rather than just contain them? At present it is quite clear that many of them are not being treated with the dignity and respect which is theirs as human beings. The prison population is higher per head of population than in any other European country. Do they all need to be in prison? Should not other solutions be urgently and carefully explored?”

This brings me to the second point that I wish to deal with, namely, alternative forms of punishment. I should add here that I am not unaware of the other needs that I cannot in this talk deal with, namely, the need for a full working day, or attendance to the victims of crime and other factors which are of huge importance in looking at our penal system. But I have read recently of one informed prison officer who has written saying that the only way to deal with crime is to have more prisons and to lock people up for a longer period. I totally disagree and think such a policy is essentially counter-productive. So let me continue by saying a word about other alternatives.

As I have said, there are many who would argue that the solution to our present prison system is simply to spend more public money, build more prisons, and staff and equip and resource them properly. Regardless of the cost to taxpayer, society has a need to lock more people away for its own safety and security while ensuring that offenders have proper reform and rehabilitation programmes. But there are many people who disagree with this, not only on grounds of cost, nor indeed that other countries manage without this.

It seems to me that Christian anthropology would go further because there are clear arguments for suggesting that the principles of justice and mercy, human dignity and the common good indicate that there is a need to change our thinking on the use of ‘custody’. Of course, we must have a mind to public safety and custody must be used for the most serious and dangerous offenders. We cannot be naive to the very real threat that certain individuals pose to wider society.

But building more prisons is simply not the answer in how to deal with many lesser crimes. We ought to realise that 70% of those in our prisons are there for non-violent offences. In 2001 some 42% of women convicted of motoring offences went to prison and in 2002 40% of women were sent down for shop-lifting, theft or handling stolen goods. There surely is a case for considering alternatives to custody as more appropriate for a very significant number of prisoners. It is just not true to say that prison works. It is well known that short-term sentences, six months to two years, are really not effective: programmes for rehabilitation don’t work in a short time and often people leave prison after six months to a year and within the same period of time re-offend and return to prison. Society should divert the lowest risk offenders out of the prison system and punish them in the community.

Some have suggested fines as a possible form of punishment. This is again a complicated question because it should not touch the poorest, but there are many who would be seriously affected and punished by fines. There are also generic community sentences which allows the Court to tailor a community punishment from a range of interventions, drug treatment, community service, tagging, curfew and police surveillance options, and in particular providing 18 hours a week of offending behaviour programmes of employment and training. These should be designed as alternatives to short custodial terms of up to six months. There is also need for lesser levels of punishment in the community. These should particularly emphasise the needs of offenders who are women, boys, elderly or petty offenders, and especially those suffering from mental problems. At the lowest level these should be rehabilitative schemes which do not give the offender a criminal record. Ideally, such schemes could lead to employment which research reveals is one of the surest preventatives of re-offending.

So how would I conclude what I want to say? Shortly before Sir David Ramsbottom, one of your earlier speakers, retired as Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2001, he sat down to write a farewell lecture at the invitation of the Prison Reform Trust. As he wrote, his wife, Sue, who had watched him tussle with the lamentable state of Britain’s prisons for six full years, slapped a piece of paper on his desk on which she had written these words, “1. If prison worked, there would be work or education for every prisoner. 2. If prison worked we would be shutting prisons not opening more. 3. If prison worked Judges would not be seeing in the dock the same people over and over again. 4. If prison worked we would not be imprisoning more people than any other European country except Turkey. 5. If prison worked, fewer mothers would be in prison and fewer children would be in care. 6. If prison worked we would be saving billions of pounds with fewer prisons, fewer care homes and fewer court cases.” True justice must produce a positive outcome for the victim, for society and for the offender. It must be possible within a penal system for an offender to make different choices from those that they have hitherto made and the system must make it possible for that transformation to take place and be assisted at every point during the offender’s sentence and life thereafter. Our present penal legal system is a long way from meeting such a description. The prison system has reached its highest ever recorded number of prisoners and is now stretched to breaking point. The terrible over-crowding only underscores the extent to which our penal system is, in practice, essentially punitive. I think we need to rectify that tendency. There should, of course, be greater concern for the victim and for the victims of crime; we need more emphasis on restorative justice, which gives victims of crime the opportunity to participate in the administration of justice and which obliges offenders to make amends to the victim and the community.

For too long there has been a tendency to consider prison as the ultimate backstop for all society’s problems – the ultimate social service which must cope with the failures and the work of other departments of government. This applies particularly to mental health, to drug and alcohol misuse, housing, employment and social welfare. Prison must not be a dustbin for the problems society fails to address elsewhere. The break-down in social life in this country, particularly with regard to the family, have effects which go deep into the prevailing culture and disorientation of British society. In case you should think that I am pointing the finger elsewhere, I think there also needs to be changes in attitude within my own Church, the Catholic Church, towards those in prison. It is true to say that concern for those in prison is not sufficiently high on the agenda of many Christians and on this we all need to examine our consciences. I repeat, that our Christian understanding of the human person insists that the innate dignity and worth of everyone is not negotiable. Jesus Christ invites us to see himself in the marginalised, in the alienated and the rejected. That is why he calls us always to extend his kingdom of mercy and compassion. The image of God comes to its glory in each one of us. Through justice and mercy, hope and forgiveness, no one is beyond the reach of God’s purpose. The possibility of change is ever present. Society should never give up on any individual, for every place is potentially a place of redemption. “I was in prison and you visited me”, said Jesus. Again, Pope John Paul said in his message to prisoners in the Year of Jubilee, “The spirit of Christ, the redeemer of the world, must breathe even where people are chained in prisons according to the logic of a still necessary human justice. Punishment cannot be reduced to a mere retribution, much less take the form of social retaliation or a sort of institutional vengeance. Punishment and imprisonment have meaning if, while maintaining the demands of justice and discouraging crime, they serve the rehabilitation of the individual by offering those who have made a mistake, an opportunity to reflect and to change their lives in order to be fully integrated into society”. That is also my wish. Thank you again for asking me to speak to you this evening.