The UK criminal justice system doesn’t work. I should know – I was a young offender myself. At 17, I went to prison and experienced first-hand its failure to reform offenders.
During my sentence, boys at the prison were ritually humiliated and beaten up, the older kids would set the younger kids on one another, and even the correctional officers would tear into us, with racist abuse and the enthusiastic application of handcuffs. The justice system disproportionately punishes Bame kids – over half of young male offenders in the UK are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds – and that racism and prejudice extends right through to its foot soldiers, as I discovered in my encounters with the prison guards.
I was lucky enough to have the support of mentors outside the correctional system, but not all ex-offenders are as fortunate. I had an aunt who fought to ensure I could sit my exams and get the materials I needed to do so. I then had another piece of fortune – a former Fleet Street editor also gave me the chance at a career. He chose to see me – my humanity and my potential.
Thanks to his belief, I had a career in British and US politics working for former prime ministers David Cameron and Tony Blair, and current prime minister Boris Johnson. I also had the privilege of working for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
However, many of the other young offenders from my time in prison didn’t have the same support on the outside. And they certainly didn’t get that support on the inside. They now spend their lives having to declare on a form to future employers that they have a criminal record, creating barrier after barrier when it comes to further education, training, and even housing.
Given the conditions in prison and the stigma it carries afterwards, alternatives for those who commit less serious crimes have to be considered now as a matter of urgency. The “tough” stance on crime – one held by concurrent governments in the UK and still its primary position – is simply not one designed to make society better, it’s one designed to keep problems out of sight, out of mind.
As a result of that continued policy the average annual prison population has quadrupled between 1900 and 2018, growing from just over 17,400 to around 83,300. To put this in context, the prison population is now so large that the UK has had the highest prison population in Europe each year since 2008, according to the Council of Europe.
However, these unacceptably high numbers only tell half the story. Violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths have seen a staggering rise thanks to overcrowding, understaffing and a culture in the UK of not caring about the welfare of prisoners. Just this January, we learned that prisoners had to wear thermals in a prison with a broken heating system.
A reckoning over racism against black kids in UK schools is overdue
It’s clear that the biggest problem with the criminal justice system is that it doesn’t reform. It only seeks to punish and fails to help prisoners gain the necessary skills to return and thrive in society. According to research from the Prison Reform Trust, nearly half of prisoners released commit further offences within a year. The figure for young offenders and women is even higher, at 68 per cent and 56 per cent respectively.
The government and the people of the UK should therefore have one goal with regards to criminal justice: reduce mass incarceration. Rather than sending more people to jail, we must create the opportunities they need to survive and thrive. This includes two crucial parts.
One is to provide offenders with the tools they need to find meaningful employment; to help them with qualifications and with opportunities that will help lift them from what are often dire circumstances that have helped push them to crime. The other, more important part, is to prevent crime in the first place. Community spaces and initiatives that give people the ability to add value to society, rather than get into trouble, have a crucial role to play here.
We have a responsibility as individuals to use our privilege, whatever that might be, to advocate for people born into less fortuitous circumstances than ourselves. This can go from using your vote to choose politicians who pursue rehabilitation over locking people up with reckless abandon, to writing to your MP to ask them to lobby for rehabilitation programmes, to (if it’s in your power) changing the hiring policy where you work so people with a record are given a chance.
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The people I went to prison with could have been CEOs, journalists or founded the next Google, if only someone had recognised their spark and nurtured it into becoming a productive one. Many offenders have been repeatedly wronged: born into the wrong postcode, fallen in with the wrong crowd, been punished again for their wrong actions and then chewed up and spat out by a system woefully built to help anyone to better themselves.
The responsibility is with us to change this, and give a chance to the formerly incarcerated and would-be offenders through action and investment.
Ashish Prashar is board member of New York-based Exodus and Getting Out and Staying Out. He also works with Leap Confronting Conflict in the UK