The creation of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) in 2005, on the recommendation of Lord Carter in December 2004, was welcomed by many. Lord Carter had rightly understood a significant problem: prisons and probation were working in very separate ‘silos’. He thought that an umbrella organization could bring them together to achieve ‘end-to-end sentence management’. But has NOMS solved the problem?
Not at all, many would agree. NOMS provides a roof over increasingly fragmented prison and probation ‘services’ but has not effectively ‘joined up’ this ‘system’ in any way. Nor is ‘management’ the right concept, if we want to help prisoners to desist from criminal life styles: we need to help them help themselves. The system needs management, not the offender. Probably the majority of offenders need individualized social, practical and financial support over a long time span. The significance of social bonds and support mechanisms should not be underestimated.
The process of desistance is hugely difficult: a process, a social transition, which requires a change both in attitude and identity. A rich literature shows how many offenders want to change, but are often ambivalent about the possibilities and endless challenges they face. Prisons are damaging places, and rarely help. Even if an offender resolves to change whilst in prison, this resolve can dissolve on release, when he (and it is usually he) is faced with the realities of life on the outside.
There have been many wise words written on the pains of imprisonment (see Ben Crewe’s work), but ‘going straight’ brings its own pains: pains of isolation, pains of failure, pains of hopelessness. And these pains vary unpredictably from time to time. I have often described a prisoner’s journey though the prison system as a game of snakes and ladders: sometimes one goes up the ladders (transfer to a lower security level, or to higher earned privileges, release, of course), but there are just as many unexpected or unpredicted snakes (adjudications, recall….). In theory a prisoner should be on a gradual and smooth return from prison to society. The reality is far from smooth. The ‘spikes’ on the graph of prisoner re-entry, the high and lows, means that ‘sentence management’ is not a smooth process. From an offender’s perspective, these random ‘spikes’ do little to inspire a sense of fair play.
I would argue that the prisoner has a right to rehabilitation or reintegration or resettlement (as Humpty Dumpty said, words can mean what you choose them to mean), or put otherwise, that the state and society owe a duty to all its citizens to facilitate their reintegration, a duty not to return prisoners to society worse off than they were before they served their sentence. For that reason, a prisoner deserves a champion: someone whose first priority is helping his or her reintegration or re-entry. But a more pragmatic justification: it is in all of our interests that re-offending be reduced.
My proposal: providing every prisoner at the very start of his or her sentence with a ‘ champion’, a key worker… not an offender manager, but an old style probation officer, or social worker, whose job is to help the offender negotiate his or her way through our over-complex penal system. Not a prison officer or someone in uniform. Probably not an ex-offender: ex-offenders can make the best mentors, but would they have the ‘clout’ to advocate effectively with the ‘authorities’ to help speed an offender through the ‘system’? Probably not a volunteer mentor, as volunteers need careful (and expensive!) management. My recommendation: an old-fashioned independent and senior probation officer (even the 19th century police court missionary – we need probation officers with a missionary’s zeal!). They would have the lead as the offender’s advocate, arguing loudly for measures and interventions which support rather than impede desistance. Pushing the prisoner’s case for reintegration, for progress through the system, at every corner. Lord Carter nearly understood this: he wanted every prisoner to have his or her own ‘offender manager’. But our understanding of desistance has come a long way in ten years: ‘management’ is not the answer.
These thoughts are being written on my return from a conference held on 26-28 March in Greifswald, northern Germany on Prisoner Resettlement in Europe. I owe a debt to everyone there for having inspired me to shout a bit louder about what’s wrong with our penal system, or rather to try and keep a public conversation alive. My thanks in particular to Fergus McNeill and Ineke Pruin. But my thanks go to everyone there: it was truly inspirational. One of the best messages I heard: you can’t learn to swim without water.