Prevention is Better than the Cure: why any programme of prison reform should start with yo

This week, Justice Minister Liz Truss made a speech about the state of the

British prison system, condemning supposed ‘quick fix’ solutions to

overcrowding and poor sentencing. This speech was made in response to

BBC footage from earlier this week, which showed the chaotic state of the

British prison system, with an undercover officer at HMP Northumberland

secretly filming his discoveries. Whilst undercover, the BBC’s reporter

discovered cases of widespread drug use, door alarms that didn’t work, holes

in security fences and an evident lack of control on the part of the prison

officers. It is clear that the poorly constructed building blocks of our prison

system are crumbling, and that we are ultimately failing to successfully

rehabilitate our criminals.

One of the main purposes of the prison system is rehabilitation, with an

intention that criminals who enter into the criminal justice system are

eventually released and never reoffend. However, as Ms Truss reminded us

yesterday, reoffending rates have soared in recent years and prisons

themselves have become remarkably more violent. Though we may assume

criminals to be the most violent members of society, that prisons – the very

institution meant to house their rehabilitation – are violent themselves seems

to go against all logic. For a criminal, prison doesn’t seem like such a bad

place to be right now.

It is in light of these problems that Truss has presented us with her thoughts

on the matter. The main points of her speech focussed on incorporating a

more severe prison inspectorate, improving rehabilitation programmes,

offering more help to drug offenders and maintaining the rules around

indeterminate sentences. However, the point made by Truss that I found most

interesting was her comment that "too often people end up in prison

because our interventions to tackle problems like drug addiction or mental health issues don't work as well as they should.” Here, I think Truss taps in to a very important, and often neglected, notion: that prevention is easier (and better) than the cure.

Clearly, the British prison system is in disarray, at which point we should not

hesitate to turn our attention to preventative measures, so as to ensure that

fewer people commit the crimes that mean they end up in prison in the first

place. At BIGKID Foundation, prevention is our focus in our work with young people in Lambeth. We understand that once a young person is in a gang, it is much harder to get them out of it than it would have been to deter them from joining. Helping a child to take the positive steps required to stay in school is easier than helping them to find a new school once they have

already been excluded. As we are currently failing to rehabilitate prisoners, it

may be more effective to take steps to prevent them becoming prisoners in

the first place.

Certainly, all criminality has a root cause that, in turn, has its own solution. It is

up to us as a charity – and as part of the wider population - to determine what

these causes might be, and where intervention is necessary. At BIGKID, we

believe intervention to be key for those children at risk of expulsion from

school. Once a young person has become NEET (Not in Education,

Employment or Training) they tend to become excluded from society, and,

consequently, over-represented in criminal statistics. Therefore, by

intervening to prevent them becoming NEET we are able to take steps to

reduce the likelihood of them engaging in criminal activity. Consequently, it

appears to me that any programme of prison reform should start with a focus

on youth work, and the preventative measures that need to be taken to

ensure that they are not stuck on a path headed for prison.

This principle can be easily explained in economic terms, proving that not only is prevention easier and better than finding a cure, but it is also cheaper. According to a 2007 report by New Philanthropy Capital “Misspent Youth: The costs of truancy and exclusion, a guide for donors and funders,” the average excluded child costs £63,851 to society – infinitely more than they do when in education. Moreover, the cost needed by organisations such as BIGKID to re-integrate a young person into the school community is miniscule in comparison to their cost to society if permanently excluded. When a person enters into the criminal justice their cost to society grows exponentially - each new prison place costs £119,000, while the annual average cost for each prisoner exceeds £40,000.

Of course, attention must be paid to the British prison system to ensure that it

is just, humane and effective at rehabilitating criminals. To have prisoners

engaging in criminal activity similar to what they were imprisoned for appears

to defy logic. Thankfully, charities such as the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League are working in line with the government to ensure wider

reform of the system. While the British prison system must be reformed to

become a more effective cure for criminal behaviour, we must not fail to

prevent the issues, circumstances and events that require a cure in the first