QCEA’s past work on the Women in Prison project, and our research into the use of Alternatives to Imprisonment, brought into focus the dysfunctions of prison systems in many European countries. In many cases prisons are overcrowded, and if there is a unifying philosophy beyond simply coping with record levels of prison populations, it is retributive. QCEA’s past work has focused on the idea, much-repeated in international agreements and treaties on the issue, that prison should be rehabilitative, preparing prisoners for their release back into society in a way that facilitates a life without crime.
This implies engaging with prisoners in a way that stresses their humanity, potential for good, and capacity for change. Prisoners are disproportionately drawn from among the most-disadvantaged sectors of society, and while this does not excuse crime, it does at least in part explain why it recurs. This is a vision that takes in all stages of the criminal justice process.
In sentencing, it means acknowledging that prisons as currently administered damage as many prisoners as they help, inflicting an unacceptable cost on their families and dependents who may have played no part in prisoners’ crimes. Except where there is a pressing case for imprisonment on the grounds of public protection, it means using prison only as a measure of last resort. It means using custodial sentences only after having already tried a range of effective non-custodial sanctions and support programmes. Within prisons, it means listening to offenders’ needs and wishes, and facilitating their contact with the support and advice that will help them plan for the period after their release from prison. It means running the criminal justice system as if prisoners’ children and families mattered, since the maintenance of positive family links is strongly linked with lower reoffending. And on release, it means not simply opening the prison gates and throwing prisoners out into the world with little or no preparation or support. These services are not cheap, but they are necessary. Epidemic levels of reoffending, along with the spiralling costs of imprisonment, mean they are indispensable.
The Quaker concern about criminal justice is based on the knowledge Quakers have gained through experience working within, and studying, criminal justice systems. From volunteering as prison visitors and chaplains, to working as probation officers and prison governors, to conducting research and pioneering innovative rehabilitative methods: Quakers know the system and the problems within it. We are neither naive nor blind to the challenges involved. But we do reject the idea that retributive punishment deters reoffending, that it is somehow possible to throw offenders into bursting prisons, offer them no opportunity to identify or support to address the factors that have contributed to their crime, and then expect them to live as law-abiding citizens after their release. Society as a whole needs to demand more of prisoners, in the form of desistance from crime; it also needs to involve them as full partners in their rehabilitation.
This report presents these arguments in depth.