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Prison is 'bad idea' for 80% of inmates, claims Birmingham criminologist

Dr James Treadwell, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University spoke out as the Prime Minister claimed the prison system had failed in a “scandalous” way

Christopher Furlong/PA Wire Prime Minister David Cameron as he tours HMP Onley in Rugby ahead of a major speech on prison reform.
Prime Minister David Cameron as he tours HMP Onley in Rugby ahead of a major speech on prison reform.

Prison reforms announced by David Cameron will fail to stop offenders who are “mentally ill, poor, unemployed, poorly educated and lacking in even basic life skills”, an expert has said.

Dr James Treadwell, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University spoke out as the Prime Minister claimed the prison system had failed in a “scandalous” way.

Announcing reforms this week, Mr Cameron highlighted high reoffending rates and “shameful” levels of violence.

The Prime Minister announced the creation of six “reform prisons” where governors would be given greater control over the way their jails are run, along with measures to transform the education system behind bars.

Mr Cameron insisted that punishment was “not a dirty word” but prisoners must not be allowed to feel that society had given up on them.

But Dr Treadwell, who has been carrying out research in prisons, said the majority of offenders would be better served outside of the institutions.

He said that announcing ‘rehabilitation prisons’ spectacularly missed the point that the two words directly contradict each other.

Dr Treadwell said: “For 80 per cent of our current prison population, prison is a bad idea.

“They are there not because they are a danger to the public, but because they are socially inadequate.

“They are mentally ill, poor, poorly educated, unemployed and lacking in even basic life skills. This might sound pejorative, but it’s true, and you will not rehabilitate those socially inadequate people in jail. You just won’t.

“You won’t change the prospects for their children, you won’t stop their offending, you won’t get them jobs, you won’t re-educate or change them and you will not increase their pro-social attitudes or victim empathy.

Criminology Lecturer James Treadwell
Criminology Lecturer James Treadwell

“Even the very best prisons see a reconviction rate of over 50 per cent of the prisoners released from them, and that is measured over a period of just two years.”

Dr Treadwell has been researching violence and victimisation in prisons alongside Dr Kate Gooch at the University of Birmingham, which has included dozens of visits to institutions and interviews with prisoners.

He continued: “If you want to deal with offenders effectively, you try something different to prison, and traditionally we called that punishment in the community.

“It was something that was largely developed in the UK and as a model of practice and it was spread around the world.

“Many countries looked in envy at the system that the UK had developed and attempted to mimic it. And then the Conservatives changed it, and things went quite wrong.

“The claim that the government now will solve our social problems with new reforms and rehabilitative prisons is one that needs to be carefully watched. History tells us that when this government commits to reform in criminal justice, the real results are often far from ideal.”

Sally Coates’ review of prison education will also promise to protect the £130 million prison education budget.

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