Michael Goode is a school governor and has been a young offenders mentor since 2017.
Let me introduce you to someone who was set up to fail. He was a mentee of mine – let’s call him Josh – in jail at 16. Josh was released four years later, full of hope, desperate to make a new start. He was back behind bars in a few weeks.
For Josh, making a success of life on the outside was like trying to start a fire without fuel. His story is typical, 45 per cent of inmates re-offend within a year of release and that tragedy costs society £18bn a year. Prisons are still revolving doors for crime. But I passionately believe we can fix this and do it in a way where everybody wins.
How did I come to know Josh and what is my experience of rehabilitation? Since 2017 I’ve been a volunteer young offenders’ prison mentor. This means that I work with young offenders expecting release. My role is to help mentees start over, find work and build a support network. I meet them on the prison wing, I’m there at the gate when they are released, and I visit them in the community.
As well as punishment and protection, prison should be about rehabilitation and reform. But in my lifetime the prison population has nearly doubled. In fact, the government is embarking on the largest prison building program for 100 years, despite England and Wales already having the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe. As previously stated in ConHome, this is set to cost £4bn. Something feels broken.
My mentees came from troubled homes and crime. Prison was their chance to turn things around but they got next to no development on the inside. That is not to say that development and education does not take place, but, as research shows, it is intermittent, varies from prison to prison and hard to access.
That leaves people like Josh with no intervention, no chance to work on themselves and no skill set to help them slot back into an increasingly digital and complex world. When people like Josh reoffend, everyone suffers, they suffer, the taxpayer suffers, and, of course, the victims suffer.
The problem here is that there is a bottleneck in our prison system. A third of the prison estate is Victorian but even newer prisons have limited spaces and resources to teach inmates and connect them to the outside world. But we can break this bottleneck by turning cells into classrooms. It’s digital technology – getting limited and controlled computers into cells, as a privilege not a right – that will pave the road to real rehabilitation.
This has three main benefits:
Number 1: Education
Nearly half of all prisoners are released with no qualifications at all. Most prisoners want to learn, but the bottleneck is a lack of classrooms and teachers. Josh and my other mentees were typical in that they were on seemingly perpetual waiting lists for courses. If all teaching takes place outside of cells, how could Josh learn if he was amongst the 35 per cent of young adult inmates who spend less than two hours a day out of their cells? This goes someway to explaining why the number of inmates participating in and completing qualifications is actually declining.
We can overcome this with in-cell digital training. Sweden, Australia and Belgium have all seen this work, recording improvements in prisoner outlook, behaviour and rehabilitation. Once we start thinking about turning the one-dimensional space that is a prison cell into a place for learning, the opportunities are amazing.
This education could range from virtual reality construction site training to virtual classes with teachers, to structured courses. As these systems are developed, best in class solutions would involve working with employers to design courses prisoners could complete with the prospect of a job at the end of it. If we get prison education right, research shows we can nearly halve reoffending rates. There needs to be an opportunity for a prisoner to improve themselves each and every day and we have the technology to make this happen.
Number 2: Welfare
With in-cell digital technology, prisoners can connect to their support networks in a controlled way. Around a fifth of male prisoners have attempted suicide. As a mentor, I could see how hard it can be for inmates to keep connections with family and friends on the outside. Visits can be costly, with lots of travel and hard to fit around a job. Research shows that proper contact with family can reduce re-offending by 39 per cent.
It is not just the prison population that would benefit. There are over 300,000 children linked in some way to the prison system, they suffer from infrequent contact with their father/mother too. We can keep connections alive through limited and controlled video calls which will improve lives inside and outside and give prisoners a sense of purpose to keep improving themselves.
Number 3: Management
Research shows that this technology dramatically improves prisoner behaviour, making prisons safer and paying for itself by saving the equivalent of two full-time prison officers in terms of time managing disturbances. This technology, firmly established as a privilege, would give inmates a further incentive to play by the rules. Josh would get into fight after fight on the wing or in the communal areas. Making cells a safe space to learn and talk has the power to help inmates shun bad influences and connect with an outside world they are at risk of forgetting.
Crime destroys lives. It scars victims and creates misery. But it is avoidable, we should be able to give everyone a genuine second chance, making our streets safer, our taxes lower and our prisons emptier. The bottle neck is our infrastructure, but we have the technology to transform this.
We were once the party that said prison works, by turning cells into classrooms, we can make sure it does.