Why the prison system is fundamentally flawed and what can be done

Is a prison sentence a punishment or an opportunity to rehabilitate and reform a convicted felon? 

Most countries view a prison sentence as a punishment. With that philosophy, a prisoner will not only lose his freedom. But he will also be placed in an over-crowded prison, sitting two people in a prison cell built for only one. He will eat food of such poor nutritional quality that he lacks the most basic nutrition needed for essential human functioning. Only through adding supplements and vitamins from the prison commissary can he maintain some level of acceptable health. The prisoner will have limited access to health care such as a general physician, a mental health care worker or dentistry. He has access to various educational programs, yet only one out of ten prisoners will, in reality, have access to it. The gatekeepers into these programs are other prisoners, so access is never granted without bribing or befriending them. 

A convicted felon often lives in conditions not suitable for human occupation. My own experience includes sitting, taking a shit less than two feet away from your cellmate without any curtains, covers or privacy protection and only having a thin blanket during the winter months without any heating in the cell being able to see your breath at all times. Toilets are constantly overflowing, so I woke up to half an inch of water and faeces floating around in the cell. We had rats and mice running in and out of the cell through the ventilation system. The plumbing is so old you can taste the lead in the water, and the water had bugs in it. Most inmates would start to lose their hair after a few weeks of drinking it. You are not treated like a human being but rather treated as nothing more than a piece of criminal scum. 

The prison officers are underpaid and under-educated in handling anything other than main order. Most officers do not care about prisoners smoking weed or doing drugs. The harsh reality is that they prefer prisoners lying in the cell numbed up on drugs as they are then at least not causing trouble. If you are a non-user of illegal drugs and are in a cell with a user, there is nothing you can do. You can complain to the officers and asks for a transfer to another cell, which rarely happens. Staying in the cell makes you guilty by association. If your prison cell is subject to a search, your drug-using cellmate will point at you. This result in both of you receiving a punishment often in the form of seven to ten days in the Special Housing Unit “SHU”, also referred to as “The Box.”

The prison takes every ounce of dignity away from you. Sitting in this environment wears you down mentally as you are locked up more than 23 hours a day. During 2020 and due to COVID, the time spent out of the cell was at a laughable level. In Wandsworth Prison, we had on average 30 minutes a day out of the cell. In the US Federal prison, I was allowed out of my cell twice a week for no more than 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes were for a shower, talking to my lawyer, a quick chat with other prisoners and somehow locate a book to read. 

You have no access to family visits. You can hardly make phone calls as the in-cell prison phone systems are often old and non-functional. For most prisoners calling loved ones means standing in line on the prison wing waiting for your turn. Usually, 15 to 20 prisoners will stand in line waiting. As everyone only has limited time available, your call last no more than a few minutes. 

Once a prisoner walks out of the prison gate, he is out without any support. Often he has no place to go, no place to stay and no money in the bank account as, more than likely, the bank has closed the account due to the criminal conviction. Most guys walk out of prison being an angrier version of themselves from when they went into the prison. 

Now ask yourself. Why would anyone think a newly released ex-convict is rehabilitated and reformed? They are not. Their prison sentence was not only the loss of freedom. But it was a constant punishment wrapped up within a punishment from start to finish and with zero support from the day they arrived in prison until they got out.  

The lack of support leads to reoffending rates of anywhere between 50% to 75% in most western countries. The US and the UK have the unfortunate pleasure of leading the pack.

How come in countries such as Denmark, Sweden and especially Norway, the reoffending rate is some of the lowest in the world. Norway has the lowest reoffend rate in the world at around 20%.  

The answers are in the way these countries view prisons and prisoners. Prisons in Scandinavia is generally not a place for punishment. It is a place for reformation and rehabilitation. It is grounded in the philosophy that if a particular behavioural pattern brought you to prison. Then you have to break that behaviour for a prisoner to have a fighting chance to be a productive member of society again. The loss of freedom IS the punishment. In every other aspect, the prisoner is given a high degree of autonomy and is encouraged to engage in incentivized programs. The prison systems focus on prisoners taking ownership of their situation. 

The prison system encourages and helps a prisoner identify what behaviours lead them to prison. Provide tools and processes to avoid the prisoner get caught up in crime again after his release. The support continues on the outside; housing provided to those who do not have any, money provided to those who need it. A social worker network is there to help the released prisoner on his way and ensure a successful integration as a productive member of society. 

You pay your debt to society by serving your time. Once served, it is in the best interest of everyone that a platform is available for a released prisoner to use as a springboard back to an everyday, law-abiding life. 

In the US and UK, the prison hands you endless pamphlets and brochures about prison rules and all the various educational programs available. The first two days, a myriad of will come and talk to you. You fill out forms, take a test to identify your level of aptitude. But all this means nothing other than satisfying prison regulation. You can dump it all in the trash bin as, first of all, no one is ever going to come around and ask you what programs you want to sign up for. And if they do come around, it is only for show, as unless you are a part of your wing’s inner circle, there is no room for you in these programs as one-hundred people are ahead of you.

Outside a few successful pilot programs in a handful of prisons, there is no real support. Not in the US nor UK prisons. 

Most countries need prison reform. Almost every Ministry of Justice in Europe and North America sent representatives to Norway for weeks at a time to investigate and observe their prison model. Everyone knows and recognizes the Norway system is far more successful than any other prison system out there.  

But the harsh reality is that prison reform does not win elections. It is the total opposite; voters seem to want politicians to be harder on criminals and lock them up even longer and throw away the keys and forget all about them. Longer prison sentences are not a deterrent factor for criminals, and it does not lower the reoffending rates. That is statically proven over and over again. If it was true, then by logic, the US will have the lowest reoffending rate as they by far hand out the longest prison sentences of any western country. If it were the case, then both the US and the UK would lead the charts for successful rehabilitation and reform; they do not. They have the highest. Ergo, the system does not work as it is today. 

Scandinavia spends twice as much per prisoner compared to the US and the UK. The investment is saved many times over in a decreasing prison population to the point prisons are closing down. Whatever upfront investment is needed to reform the prison system is saved many times over in the long run. It will truly give released prisoners a new chance at life as well as create a safer society.

As Nelson Mandela so famously said, “no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” 

Does a country want to rehabilitate and reform, or does it want to punish? Punishment never works, never has and never will. Norway has a prison population of around 50 per 100,000 people. The UK is at 150, and the US takes the gold medal with 700 prisoners per 100,000. 

The only way countries such as the US and the UK can lower their incarceration and reoffending rates is to fundamentally change their perspective on what a prison sentence should be all about. 

Move away from the ideology that a prison sentence is a punishment as it will never break new ground. It will only ever keep a majority of convicted felons come back again and again, as evident by the statistics. Once and for all, make the prison reforms needed to change the entire prison system into one focused on reform and rehabilitation. Yes, it will cost a fortune the first many years. But the money is saved many times over once the first prisoners enter into their newfound freedom as hopefully a better person than the one entering the prison system. 

I spent time in prison in the US and the UK. Of everyone I met along my journey, 100% was innocent. No one took ownership of the actions that lead to their prison sentence. Everyone blamed everyone else but themselves. Few had any remorse or compassion for their victims. Most people sat in prison planning their next criminal enterprise as they have no help or prospect to turn their lives around.  

As long as the prison system offers no alternative to what is familiar to the released prisoners, society should not expect a different outcome. 50%-75% will be back, and so it will continue until doomsday unless you break the vicious cycle. Do as the Norwegians – bring humanity back into the prison system. Reform and rehabilitate instead of punishing. Treat the prisoners like human beings and give them a real chance to be better people. Provide the opportunity, and most of them will grab that opportunity and run with it. But the opportunity has to be there for them to grab. And the opportunity has to be provided from within the prison system. And for that to happen, someone has to push Control-Alt-Delete and reboot the collective thinking on a government level. Do not make prison reform or lack of same a key election topic. Look at the prison system as preventative health care. What can be done to prevent disease, or if a patient is sick, what preventive medicine is needed to keep the patient from coming back to the hospital. What preventive measures should be implemented in prison to keep a prisoner from coming back. It is not a riddle that only Batman can solve. Adopt the Norwegian model and turn criminals into good neighbours. That strategy has statistically proven to be a better plan than the kick-in-the-groin approach used by the US and the UK. 

Ulrik Debo

Published by geoffreyericsmith

Director of, BEST, Befriending and Support Team for Foreign Nationals in HMP Wandsworth

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