The Long Vacation draws to an end, and academics sigh with irritation as students (and others) ask them if they have had a good holiday, as though we have been relaxing over the last four months… This was the research time. Holidays are a luxury! Actually, I have managed to read some fascinating books which I probably wouldn’t have done in term time.

One which I have found particularly fascinating is Gerard Lemos’ The Good Prison: conscience, crime and punishment, published earlier this year. Lemos works in social policy, and has written a book which shows that he has explored much of the criminological literature and has seen how it is (or isn’t) applied on the ground. I fear that his radical agenda for change has no hope of achievement – but I’d like to challenge politicians and policy makers to explain why not.

Lemos starts by revisiting what is well known: many offenders have had fractured lives and challenging childhoods, with little structure – and the current criminal justice system often serves simply to alienate them further from mainstream society. He argues that prisons need a greater sense of structure and purpose, and finds an important place for family, empathy and “conscience” throughout the system.

This leads to a fascinating discussion of the “good prison”. I select just three of his recommendations:

(i) He makes a clear case for the use of volunteers in prison life:

“The volunteer’s presence is a silent statement that the unknown world which the prisoner can no longer see or feel has some faith in them and so they should have faith in themselves. For these reasons: the downplaying of stigma, the presence of benevolent altruism and the social respect and attachment that prisoners feel for (mostly female) volunteers, charities and voluntary groups have a unique and valued place in prison” (p. 116).

I agree. At a time when many “services” are being closed or simply privatised, it is important to remember the importance of the eyes and ears of the “ordinary” volunteer in prison life, breaking down the metaphorical walls between offender and the rest of society.

(ii) Another perceptive insight is how most of the traditions and symbols of prison culture are entirely negative. He argues that it is “highly ironic” that the release from prison is not attended by a positive ritual:

“The huge prison doors slam shut behind the ex-offender, carrying personal possessions in a black bin bag in a humiliating reminder that family photos, treasured souvenirs and small things made while in prison are like rubbish” (p 192).

So Lemos argues for more meaningful and positive sentence plans. He suggests that prisoners should leave prison with a revised and forward-looking plan, very different from current license conditions:

“As well as being a record of compliance with requirements of the authorities, a piece of paper produced as evidence of a reformed character ready for release at a sceptical parole hearing, it should be an object of pride. The sentence completed, the record kept, the ex-offender should be congratulated by the prison authorities on the completion of the sentence plan” (p. 196).

He also wants the prisoner to sign up to a “conscience compact” to cover plans for making amends for the wrong that has been done, plans for living a “life of good conscience”. “Embracing the positive” (p. 197) may well be transformational:

“It is about hopes, not just adequately ameliorating fears, either the ex-offender’s own fears or the fears of the world about them” (p 197).

But how realistic is this in today’s criminal justice world? Lord Woolf’s proposed “prisoner compacts” back in the very different world of 1991 fell on deaf ears because the Prison Service knew it would be nearly impossible for it to commit to its side of any bargain struck. But Lemos is also clearly right that “payment by results” should go to ex-offenders themselves, and not simply to those who provide them with services.

(iii) This leads to another important point: the benefits system, or rather the cash incentives of the benefits system, are often currently counter-productive (less money if you get a job or live with Mum). There is an interesting argument in favour of Conditional Cash Transfers for ex-offenders.

The book is not always entirely accurate (see his discussion of the rules on imprisonment for public protection (IPP) at page 91) but that may be more a criticism of the complexity of the current rules rather than a criticism of Mr Lemos. He also focuses perhaps too much on the “typical” young, male offender. There are many further questions to be asked about the treatment of women, foreign nationals, elderly prisoners, the mentally ill etc etc within the penal system. But Lemos focuses on some big questions in a very approachable way. I hope the book was on the holiday reading of key policy makers and politicians. It made me think … and hope.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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