Prison clearly does not work

Vicky Pryce: ‘Prison clearly does not work’

Fresh from jail, the economist and author of Prisonomics explains why the system costs too much, locks up the wrong people and does not prevent reoffending

Vicky Pryce at her home in south London.. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Sitting in the kitchen of Vicky Pryce’s elegant south London home, it’s hard not to think about the differences between her life and the lives of most of the women she met as she was serving her prison sentence earlier this year. Released from East Sutton Park open prison in May on an electronic tag after serving eight weeks of her eight-month sentence, Pryce has published a book about her experience. A combination of diary and economic analysis of the prison system, entitled Prisonomics, it is a sobering, compelling read that would serve as a blueprint for any politician who wanted to focus seriously on reform….

 

…Has it made her a better person? “I’d hate to think you have to go to prison to be a better person,” she says. “I would not recommend anyone going to prison, but I think I would have been much less of a complete person if this hadn’t happened. There would have been a whole chunk of something very important that is happening in society that I would not have realised was going on.”

Pryce came to Britain from her native Greece alone as a teenager and worked in hotel room service to pay for O- and A-level studies before gaining a scholarship to study at the LSE. Her career as an economist took her to the highest levels of government. In 2002 she became the first woman chief economic adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry and in 2007 became joint head of the government’s economic service. When the news broke that she had been sent to prison, I felt, like many, that the sentence was a disproportionate response to the crime – perverting the course of justice. But Pryce has worked with charities that help unemployed people and ex-offenders so it may be no bad thing for a respected expert in economics to have a look at what is going on in our prison system from the inside.

Having worked in undeveloped countries in dangerous and unpredictable environments, Pryce says she felt no fear about going to prison. “Holloway was a great big chaotic place, but as soon as I started speaking to other girls it was very clear to me that prison was not necessarily the best thing for them. So many had problems that were not being dealt with and wouldn’t be dealt with in prison. There were many who were in for things that you would have thought society could have dealt with in a different and more helpful way. So straightaway I was thinking about these things. You see what goes on in Holloway and you wonder what is gained for society by keeping people in those conditions. I began writing and making loads of points. There was no internet, so I had to wait till I got out to do proper research. People would send me stuff, like the Corston Report on women in prison and economic stuff. It was quite obvious that this needed to be looked at from an economic viewpoint.”

Her observations brought logical conclusions. “The majority of women, over 80%, are in prison on short sentences of less than 12 months for non-violent offences. A good proportion of these women are mothers. The annual cost per prison place for a woman is more than £56,000, yet intensive community orders cost less than a third of that and evidence shows they have more impact on reducing reoffending. It makes no economic sense to keep women in prison who present no threat of harm to others. Prison often exacerbates the problems these women were facing before they were sent away. The lack of co-ordinated governmental thinking on this is perpetuating the problems and doing nothing to lower costs or re-offending, which costs a staggering £9bn or £10bn a year.”

Her grasp of the facts is startling. But how are politicians and decision-makers to be persuaded that changes are necessary and beneficial?

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Opinion:

The big question is, are prisons a relic from the middle ages, that have no place in the lower levels of offending?

Do they in fact serve the needs of today’s society?

The revenge paradigm is driven by people’s need to seek retribution. There are many crimes that attract prison sentences, but many of them should not.

Take for example a mother that kills or abandons her new born baby, this is a mental disturbance, not a crime. But we send her off to prison as a need to demonstrate our disgust at her ‘crime’. Treatments for this type of mental disturbance in prisons is woefully inadequate and she is eventually released with exactly the same condition as before. Society has gained absolutely nothing.

This is just one instance of many ‘crimes’ that makes prison a farce.

If society wants to be civilised, then we have to look at alternatives. But we don’t, we don’t want to; they’re just thrown in the ‘too hard’ basket and forgotten.

Dear Christine

Today on The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap: A father, who learned that his daughter disowned his grandson because he was gay, responded in the most amazing way.

Dear Christine,

I’m disappointed in you as a daughter. You’re correct that we have a “shame in the family”, but mistaken about what it is. Kicking Chad out of your home simply because he told you he was gay is the real “abomination” here. A parent disowning her child is what goes “against nature.” The only intelligent thing I heard you saying in all this was that “you didn’t raise your son to be gay.” Of course you didn’t. He was born this way and didn’t chase it any more than he being left-handed. You however, have made a choice of being hurtful, narrow-minded and backward. So, while we are in the business of disowning our children, I think I’ll take this moment to say goodbye to you. I now have a fabulous (as the gays put it) grandson to raise, and I don’t have time for heart-less B-word of a daughter. If you find your heart, give us a call. – Dad.

Check the link above for an awesome post based on this letter.