I’m asking this question after being fortunate enough to attend the Prison Yoga Project in London, Brixton with James fox. The aim of the Prison Yoga Project is to heal the trauma that many prisoners have suffered in their lives. If everything in their life was great they wouldn’t have ended up in prison. Trauma informed and mindfulness based yoga is therefore different from ordinary studio yoga - it's primary objective is to heal.
The prison system crisis is well documented. Just recently Michael Spurr, Head of Prisons and Probation was asked to quit amid the crisis. The system just isn’t working, but the prisoners aren’t to blame when we as a society don’t provide the tools they need to make effective change.
The problems within prisons are numerous, officer numbers have decreased as the prison population has grown; a population who are held in an ageing prison estate designed to hold far fewer inmates. The past twelve months have seen an increase in prisoner assaults on staff and prisoners, and in prisoner self-harm and suicide (113 suicides in the year to March 2017). Prisons in crisis don’t work for victims, communities, offenders or society as a whole.
David Cameron, in one of his final domestic policy speeches as prime minister, said re-offending rates and levels of prison violence, drug-taking and self-harm "should shame us all".
We should be measured as a society by how we treat our animals, our elderly and those that we incarcerate, shame on us indeed.
The Government has claimed that proposed rehabilitation and reform changes would address many underlying issues. The proposed changes are widely criticised as not going far enough to affect significant change. Overcrowding can make accessing prison rehabilitation harder. Prisoners moved between prisons as a result of overcrowding may lose their place on waiting lists for services such as education and addiction treatment programs, not to mention distancing them from their loved ones.
Overcrowding has a corrosive effect. It is, in the words of the author of Strangeway's report, Lord Woolf, "a cancer eating at the ability of the prison service" to deliver effective education, tackle offending behavior and prepare prisoners for life on the outside.
Also add to this the growing and seemingly unstoppable drug abuse problems, despite the obvious dangers that drugs pose, they are popular because they provide a diversion to the boredom and frustration of prison life. The drugs are also a source of income for criminal gangs whose illicit use of phones and drones has helped the trade thrive behind bars.
So this brings us to our main question, does locking up people stop re-offending and rehabilitate them?, here’s the latest numbers from the Prison Reform Trust
Prison has a poor record for reducing re-offending with 44% of adults re-convicted within one year of release.
For those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 59%.
48% of women are re-convicted within one year of leaving prison. This rises to 61% for sentences of less than 12 months and to 78% for women who have served more than 11 previous custodial sentences.
Nearly seven in 10 children (69%) sent to prison are re-convicted within a year of release this rises to 78% for those serving sentences of less than six months.
Short prison sentences are less effective than community sentences at reducing re-offending.
People serving prison sentences of less than 12 months had a re-offending rate seven percentage points higher than similar offenders serving a community sentence, they also committed more crimes.
Re-offending by all recent ex-prisoners costs the economy between £9.5 and £13 billion annually.
As much as three quarters of this cost can be attributed to former short-sentenced prisoners: some £7–10bn a year.
The contributing factors and statistics available on prisons could fill many more pages, but I will perhaps save that for future posts, to draw some conclusion here for now, of course there must be a response to criminal offending that censures criminal wrongs, but why do we honestly expect something constructive like rehabilitation to come out from a process like the current prison service?
Punishment does not have to be as it always has been. Wouldn’t it serve society and the community better to invest in direct rehabilitation programs to stop re-offending? We must not lose sight of prisoners as people. Mending the damage of the prison crisis, for wider society, not just for prisoners and staff, will be difficult, but for punishment to work for offenders, victims and society, we need to remember how to care, and part of that duty of care is to help prisoners reconnect with themselves and society.
Is this where yoga and mindfulness could be used to fill some of the void? Perhaps it could, I certainly believe it can. I also believe if we could catch it earlier with young offenders that they might not get to that point where they get to prison, take it a step back even further and if we provide children in schools with the tools to deal with trauma, stress and anxiety we might prevent them from getting to the young offenders institute, what do you think?