Busy jails in UK

BRITAIN'S jails are at bursting point and judges have been reminded by government ministers that only the most serious offenders should be put behind bars.

BRITAIN'S jails are at bursting point and judges have been reminded by government ministers that only the most serious offenders should be put behind bars.

Even so, today it is being suggested old RAF bases should be re-opened as extra jails.

But while many people would say there are offenders who should be jailed, others would question whether prison is the right place for some who appear in our courts and surely there should be other help and punishment available. RICHARD CORNWELL investigates.

DEPRIVING a person of their liberty is probably the hardest decision a judge or magistrate has to make.

In Britain, some 80,000-plus people are behind bars, most unarguably deservedly so - for the most serious crimes: murder, rape, armed robbery, violent assaults, sex offences against children.

But there are many others - one prison reform group reckons up to 30,000 - who should not be in prison in the first place.

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It is argued prison is too harsh a punishment for these criminals.

But it is not just that the sentence is too strict.

They may serve their time, but these offenders come out with the same problems - the same addictions to drink or drugs, the same emotional and social problems, the difficulties of fitting in with the community and getting on with life.

For example, should Arthur Burgess - one of the oldest people in the country to receive an Asbo - be in prison awaiting sentence for breaching the order when a court has already been told of his “deteriorating mental state” and the need for new psychiatric reports?

Many would say the 81-year-old, of Cavendish Road, Trimley St Martin needs other help to get him through the problems which led him to receive an Asbo.

Drink-driver Caroline Fletcher, 28, of Grange Road, Felixstowe, was irresponsible and wreckless in putting her children at risk after driving under the influence of alcohol, but more than anything needs help to kick her booze habit and get her life back on track.

Many drink-drivers lose their jobs, driving licence, possibly their home if it is rented or they cannot to pay the mortgage through their changed circumstances, yet some will still come out of prison with the urge to drink - possibly more so when faced with the challenge of rebuilding their lives.

Will a drug taker come out clean, or having learned more about drugs, perhaps ready to step up a grade into more serious crime? Will a shoplifter still need to steal to feed themselves and family?

There is support for these people to help them back into society, but the sad fact is many appear before court again, and again. The big question is whether prison really is the answer or should there be another way.

One group, UNLOCK, the National Association for Reformed Offenders, says there is another way - and it has already raised £400 million of private finance to back it.

It wants to create centres of excellence, where offenders accused of minor crimes will be put on 12-week discipline courses before being trained for work, guaranteed a job at the end of their training and then earn money to pay back their training costs.

Most of the jobs would be in construction, such as plastering, bricklaying and electrical trades.

The developments would be put within communities and could feature homes. Facilities such as lecture rooms or sports halls would become cinemas or open to the community in the evenings.

“Probably up to one-third of the people in prison should not be there,” said UNLOCK's chief executive Bobby Cummines .

“These are low tariff offenders, the pests of society, people involved in petty shoplifting and anti-social behaviour - not murders, not rapists, the dangerous people who should be in prison.

“We should be looking to reform these minor offenders so they can be a part of community, so they can have a job and a home.

“Instead of being locked away in a place where many simply learn how to commit crime better in future, we need to give them purposeful activity where they can train to be a craftsman, can be made to feel a part of community.

“It's no good getting tough on crime because that simply isn't working, but going soft on crime is no good either because that just causes mayhem. What we need to do is face the problem head on and reduce crime, reduce the prison population, cut rates of re-offending.”

Mr Cummines believed an UNLOCK centre of excellence could achieve this as a real alternative to custody - as well as providing self-discipline and promoting structured lives.

A former Suffolk magistrate though said deciding a person's punishment was not an easy task - but the decision was a collective one by the bench, which had to adhere to strict government guidelines on sentencing for different offences.

“Everyone should be treated as an individual but unfortunately the guidelines didn't always allow that - there wasn't enough flexibility when it came to sentencing a person,” she said.

“Prison isn't right for everyone, but at the same time everyone must pay their dues.”

WEBLINK: www.unlock.org.uk

What do you think - should we send less people to prison, and what should be the alternative? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail EveningStarLetters@eveningstar.co.uk

FASTFACTS: Behind bars in Britain

Around 80,000 people are in jail in Britain - that's 135 per 100,000 of the population, the highest rate in Europe.

It costs an average of £37,305 a year to keep a prisoner behind bars.

More than 6,400 people are serving life sentences - the highest number in Europe.

Many jails have more prisoners than their target limit, but meet a level considered safe - the government says there will be 2,000 extra prison places by the end of the year, and 8,000 more in the next four years.

About one in three female and half of male prisoners were excluded from school and a majority have no qualifications.

More than 50 per cent of people in prison are sentenced to less than 12 months. They have committed less serious offences but are more likely to re-offend than those with longer sentences.

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