Attack on prisons fuels riots debate

Though the riot flames have died down, the political debate is hotter than ever. In a new attack on the effectiveness of the UK prison system, Ken Clarke argues for more rehabilitation.

Ken Clarke, the UK justice secretary, is near desperation. Revealing that three quarters of adults arrested during rioting in August had been in prison before, he has condemned a 'broken' criminal justice system.

The fact that so many were ex-cons, means, of course, that August's looters were familiar with crime. But it also shows that a system designed to keep them from further criminal activity failed.

It's not just occasional riots, either, that see offenders returning to prison again and again. The rate of reoffending is 60% among those in jail for less than a year –so high that prisons are often said to have 'revolving doors', waving goodbye to prisoners only to have them walk right back in again.

With 86,821 people currently locked up, the UK prison population – and its cost to the UK taxpayer – has never been higher. This pressure alone is prompting politicians to think more about different ways to deal with criminals, including sentences for work in the community, courses to improve employability or beat drug addiction, and electronic tagging.

Many argue that the nature of prisons makes people institutionalised – unable to deal with the trials of personal responsibility when they return to the outside world. Rampant drug use, violent bullying, or just being surrounded by criminals might make illegal behaviour seem normal and acceptable for those inside.

Penal reform campaigners have argued for a greater focus on rehabilitation within prison, including more and better opportunities for prisoners to work or study. Now, in the man in charge of justice, they have a powerful ally.

Clarke has long believed that it's necessary to prepare prisoners for productive lives. More emphasis on rehabilitation, he says, will deal with what he sees as the causes of the riots – the 'feral underclass', a group without jobs, education, or a stable home life. With David Cameron calling the riots 'criminality, pure and simple', this could be an issue that stokes controversy in government for some time to come.

Punishment or rehabilitation

In the wake of the riots the courts have worked round the clock to bring offenders to justice. In such a time of crisis, they want to show that the law can't be flouted lightly, and hand down stiff sentences.

But with so many reoffenders, prisons aren't doing well at keeping people away from crime after their release. Many want to see an emphasis on punishment, not least in Ken Clarke's own Conservative party. Is the justice secretary right to want to give prisoners a constructive route back to mainstream society?

You Decide

  1. Is the purpose of prison to punish or to help?
  2. What does Ken Clarke mean when he refers to a 'feral underclass', and is this a useful or damaging term?


  1. Design a poster advertising a training day that will help prisoners develop new skills that will help them in the outside world.
  2. Research how other countries deal with criminals. Choose which method you think is the most effective, and present an argument for why it is the best.

Some People Say...

“Everyone deserves a second chance.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this mean the rioters are going to get community sentences?
They haven't been that lucky, no. Since the riots, opinion has actually turned the other way, with calls for tougher sentences to show potential offenders the law isn't something to be messed with.
So how have they been punished?
More harshly than if they'd broken the law last summer, for sure. 90% of riot cases at Crown Courts, where more serious cases are tried, resulted in jail terms, compared to an average of 46% for non riot-related crimes.
How long will those jail terms be?
The figure varies according to the crime, and other considerations – but it's likely to be more than they would get outside the riots. The average sentence for theft or handling stolen goods in the riots is 13.6 months, for example, compared to 11.6 months for the same last year.

Word Watch

Continuing to commit crime after being released from prison.
In places like prisons, schools, or military organisations, people are part of a large community that follows strict rules, routines, and hierarchies. Becoming used to this rigid structure can present problems when returning to normal society.
Penal reform
Restructuring, or changing, the criminal justice system for the better. Penal reform can focus on a range of areas, such as sentencing times, prison conditions and, in some countries, the death sentence.

One element of our justice system is punishing people for the crimes they have committed. Rehabilitation, on the other hand, looks at helping criminals move on from illegal lifestyles and prepare to become productive members of society.


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