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Tuesday, 5 February, 2002, 12:50 GMT
Weekend prisons: Will penal reform plans work?
A radical shake-up of the prison system, including more open prisons or hostels, is due to be unveiled by Home Secretary David Blunkett.
He wants to take advantage of electronic tags or voice recognition technology and allow non-violent prisoners to work on weekdays while spending evenings and weekends in custody.
Mr Blunkett says this "genuine third option" to imprisonment and community punishment will help tackle the problem of crowded jails and outdated facilities that hamper attempts at prisoner rehabilitation.
What do you think of the proposals? Should non-violent prisoners be allowed to work? Will it improve rehabilitation rates if offenders are only locked up at nights and weekends? Will Britain's prison problems be eased?
This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
John Lindley, UK
Fantastic idea! We could even go further and not convict criminals in the first place so that we wouldn't only save money on keeping criminals in prison, but we'd also save on expensive trials. And while were at it we could do away with the police force and just have a free-for-all: The one who is still alive at the end is the winner!
As the US has had work release systems in place for many years, it is debatable whether this type of punishment carries any weight. Some offenders look to work release as a wonderful break & do not look back or repeat an offence. Others laugh in the face of the judicial system under pressure to accommodate the sheer number of criminals presented to it.
This process of tagging and tracking would present a mild psychological restraint on the individual, but unless they are truly repentant, this will not be enough reform.
There is no easy solution, as is evidenced by the responses above.
Great idea! And while the criminals are at the office we can get law-abiding unemployed people in to clean their cells for them! This government has lost the plot.
There are people inside for things that some of us think shouldn't be a crime (peddling pot) or as a much-too-harsh punishment (Tony Martin's defence of his own property from a known burglar). Perhaps if the list of things you could get sent down for were straightened out there would be less of a problem.
K Livingstone, Scotland
James Palmer, UK
I believe non-violent prisoners should be separated from violent prisoners. Some people go to prison for non-payment of debts. It would be better to encourage these prisoners to acquire skills needed to work honestly in the future. Prison is an easy option when the prisoners have no sense of responsibilities. It must be very difficult when prisoners are released with no skills after being protected, all meals provided and everything paid for while inside. There should be more help for prisoners when they come out. Not all families and friends stand by loyally like Mary Archer. Some reject their families because they have been to prison. Reform of the system is very much needed.
If a prisoner is non-violent does this mean that we can all relax, because they can't possibly be dangerous?
Good idea - minimise the amount of time mild criminals spend in crime university (ahem - prisons) and maintain their jobs, family and friends so that when they leave prison they don't have "nothing to lose" and don't spend time with their new prison friends that steal cars instead of going to the pub.
If you bash someone on the head, nick their phone and get four years, is that four years at the weekends only? This is pathetic. Could someone please tell me what constitutes as petty crime? Anyone who has been a victim of crime will tell you that to see the perpetrator locked up for the weekend is tantamount to persecuting the victim. Once again the government have really looked at both sides with utmost clarity.
Steve Taylor, Warwickshire, UK
Yes by all means let them work - in a chain gang under armed guard, clearing the rubbish at the sides of our motorways. Maximum securty prisoners could be put to work on oil and gas rigs. They wouldn't escape from there.
Since not all criminals are a long-term threat to society, it is illogical to consider a prison term an adequate response to dealing with criminals. Mr Blunkett's efforts must be applauded as the first small step in reorganising the penal system. The criminal compensates for the damage to society but unless they are diagnosed as dangerous, they can be fully integrated back into the world. We must move away from leaving people with a negative label for life, when all they have been guilty of is a slip, or just had the bad luck to be caught.
Roger Briggs, UK
Tony Blair was elected on the slogan "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." Next time he is in the country, perhaps he could start to deliver on that promise.
Do we as a society want to punish criminals for what they have done, or do we want to minimise the possibility that they will re-offend upon release? The two aims are often mutually exclusive. Blunkett isn't proposing that these people should earn wages, or do regular jobs that would deprive the unemployed of opportunity. He wants them to be used for community service activities, such as litter-picking and refurbishing run-down accommodation. Personally, I'd rather have non-violent criminals working hard in society on community projects than sitting in a cell where they give nothing back to society.
This is a ludicrous proposal. Instead of weekend prisons, Blunkett would do better to reduce prison overcrowding by introducing alternative sentencing for some crimes. This should include the seizure of a criminal's property and funds as a punishment for theft or fraud and the immediate deportation and permanent exclusion of any non-British national convicted of an imprisonable crime.
Dan, Manchester, UK
It's fast becoming that criminals have more rights and opportunities than their victims. Crime and punishment is fast becoming crime and sympathy.
Yet again, a politician proposes to tinker with consequences rather than to thoroughly research the causes of crime and then act. Not all offenders are hardened or violent criminals, so what are the circumstances that predispose to offending. What induces people to offend? The answers should not be hard to find and a dose of reality would help. Stop playing self-serving politics and work for people.
Prisoners cost the public an absolute fortune so I think if they can be allowed out to work and the government be allowed to take whatever percentage they need to ensure that the prisoners don't cost them anything. People are who say that's not fair because they are getting free board and lodging, well yes, that is what they usually get. Although under this new system they might be able to pay for what they cost the public and earn some money of their own so that when they come out they don't instantly re-offend for some cash. They might even learn the pleasures of actually earning your own money and not go back to their life of crime. I think if this is properly controlled, and implemented very carefully it might be a really good idea. Just think of all the extra hospitals we could build etc.. with all the extra money, is it such a bad risk now?
I saw a television documentary once about prisons in other countries and the Netherlands adopted this idea for one of its prisons and results showed that reoffenders let back into prison actually decreased by a large percentage compared to prisons in the UK. I believe this will give offenders a sense of purpose and develop the necessary skills needed for when their prison term has finished. I think it is a good idea.
Apart from the punishment side, I thought the point of imprisoning criminals was so the rest of us could go about our business without the threat of being robbed, burgled, murdered etc. What happens to that idea now? If the prison population is rising because more people are getting caught committing crimes, and sentences are tougher, then good. I am happy to see these people locked away. The government should just build a few more prisons. Is this new idea "Tough on crime..." - I don't think so.
Simon Cameron, UK
Doesn't this idea already exist anyway? Bail hostels work in exactly the same fashion - offenders have to be remain in the hostel in the evenings and overnight and are free to do what they want during the day - or theoretically undergoing employment and training! The reality is that many offenders continue to commit crimes whilst staying at Bail hostels and eventually end up back in prison anyway. Isn't it time Blunkett looked at making some proper, genuine changes in the prisons themselves or working at preventative strategies to stop people needing custodial sentences in the first place?
Lydia , Warwickshire has misunderstood the purpose of bail hostels - the people in bail hostels have not been convicted of any crime, they are people awaiting trial who have no other suitable accomodation but are not appropriate to remand in custody. ie. under English law, they are innocent.
The idea of weekend prisons is surely a halfway stage between short sentences full-time in prison and penalties which used to be called community service. As long as the courts are allowed the discretion to apply the penalties appropriately, I think they'll be a good idea.
Most people who break the law have chosen to do so. Sending minor offenders to jail for a few days or weeks will punish them and make a straight life more difficult. That's what the reoffending statistics say. There are two possibilities. Either go the American way, where stealing a hamburger can mean life in prison (three strikes rule) and build many more prisons (where?) or have a punishment that as far as possible reduces the likelihood of reoffending. I do not think David Blunkett is that loony.
The point that few of your contributors
seem to want to face is that the UK already
locks up more people than any other country in
Western Europe, with no evidence that it
does any good.
One person says "build more prisons", but
where? Maybe we could start with one
at each end of his street?
Surely it is better to do something more
constructive with people whose liberty
does not present a danger to society.
For example community service, compulsory
attendance at courses to force them
to confront the consequences of their crimes.
Things which have drastically cut recidivism rates
across the continent.
Or is all this too soft for our vengeance-driven
This is just ridiculous - prison actually looks appealing now. I could go out and mug someone for a mobile phone, get five years' rent-free accommodation with in-built Sky TV and gymnasium, three free meals a day, the opportunity of learning through a library and now, a job to go to during the week. I struggle to survive on my secretarial wage - I can't afford gym membership nor Sky TV nor have the time to go and use my local library as its resources are so small there is a very poor selection and I work the extra hours to have enough money to pay London rents. Crime looks more attractive then living by the law - it has to stop. Jail is for criminals. Criminals should suffer for their crimes. End of story.
I don't understand these holiday camp comparisons to prison. It seems to me that it would take a lot more than Sky TV to make one of these places enjoyable. It's rare that you hear of punishment beatings and gang rape at Butlins.
The hang 'em and shoot 'em brigade have painted themselves into a corner. They demand longer and longer sentences for every offender, but the result is that it costs us a fortune to give them a thorough education in crime and we create the chance of re-offending. Prison should only be for violent crime and persistent re-offenders, and the sentences should be on a rigid scale matched to the crime, not to the mood of the judge. The rest should be allowed to work for a living and preserve what is left of their family values with the punishment being loss of their pleasure time.
The people we lock away are generally criminals, in some cases that is their job!
Build more prisons, and don't allow Playstations or televisions. Prison is a place of punishment. The only message this is sending is that it's okay to commit crime! How on earth do we expect to reduce crime when the result of your actions is most likely a stay in a holiday camp?
The Lord Chief Justice says that mobile phone muggers should expect five years in jail. Now David Blunkett says they'll be let out during the week. No contradiction in policy there, is there?
In effect, bungling Blunkett's third way of resolving prison overcrowding is to release prisoners. Is there really any point in committing people to prison and then only locking them up at night - when they're presumably asleep anyway? It seems that Blunkett has unilaterally decided that the only criminals worth locking up are those who are predisposed to violence. So we can now look forward to seeing Harold Shipman, Lord Archer et al stacking shelves in our local supermarkets.
People pay a fortune for accommodation especially in London - now all you need to do is break the law and it's free. Why not make this only during the week then people can go home to their families at the weekend? I would risk it - guilty me lord - I sentence you to six months' free board and lodging.
Blunkett should be very careful in how prisoners are assessed on suitability for this scheme. Only prisoners that are not likely to recommit offences should be let out - otherwise a regular crime wave would start every Monday, and end every Friday. However, if some prisoners can be allowed to contribute to society once more and be assisted in their reintegration back into the community through carefully controlled partial releases, then this can only be a good thing. Workable and reliable technology must be used to prevent prisoners recommitting offences and taking advantage of the scheme.
Why doesn't Mr Blunkett just change the names of prison to Butlins? Under Mr Blunkett's looney left approach, crime does pay.
Would Blunkett want people, such as Nick Leeson, working in the City again?
Mr Blunkett is correct that some prisoners who are not a threat to the public should not be in prison, but only in cases where another punishment is more appropriate. Take Jeffery Archer for example, putting him in prison has given him the chance to write the inevitable bestseller, "My Prison Diary", which he will surely gain from. In this case prison is not an appropriate punishment.
However giving them jobs is wrong. Where are these jobs coming from as unemployment is rising? Will these be taken from those law-abiding unemployed people? If so, what message is this giving to people who are in this position?
Mr Blunkett is tackling this situation at the wrong end. He needs to start with the legal system in this country first. I have only visited a crown court once, as a spectator, and was appalled at the shambles I witnessed. Would it cost much more to check these non-violent prisoners first, to ensure they are really guilty?
"Do the crime, do the time" is slowly becoming "do the crime have a good time."
03 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Blunkett unveils prison reforms
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