Research on different jurisdictions and their incarceration facilities allows us to better understand how justice is served within each country. An adequate legal system aims to hold persons responsible for crime(s) and accountable for their actions. Societal and cultural influences are constant variables in determining what order of accountability is enough for a criminal. For example, some countries aim to rehabilitate their prisoners and ensure that accountability is addressed and understood throughout the duration of the sentencing. The United Kingdom is one of the countries that has acknowledged the positives of rehabilitation during incarceration for a great deal of time. The Penitentiary Act of 1779 made rehabilitation a main policy of all state prisons. When the model of privatized prisons was introduced in the 1990s, it was and still is expected for private prisons to aim for maximum cost-effectiveness. However, all of the 14 prisons that have been contracted out to private companies (as listed on the Ministry of Justice website) have addressed the need for rehabilitation on their websites. Most websites also outlined the performance of staff members as a tool to ensure prisoner wellbeing. With a total of 117 prisons in the United Kingdom, there is no overwhelming evidence to suggest a diversion from the government’s policy of rehabilitation.
There are several schemes that have been introduced by the government to amplify said policy. For example, prisons in the United Kingdom allow prisoners access to new skills and qualifications, this is best described as an opportunity for paid work through various jobs around the prison, or even outside the prison (depending on the prisoner’s security level). Qualifications such as GCSEs and labour-related skills can also be obtained during the prisoner’s sentence. Such opportunities are accessible through the Individual Learning Plan. Additionally, prisoners can access specialist support for drug and drinking problems to pave the way for a better life after incarceration. Although all this support is available to prisoners, the UK records a relatively high number of repeat offenders. The younger demographic holds the highest statistic of recidivism in the UK and the total rate of recidivism stands at 75% when measured over a period of nine years. It is still important to recognise that the rate of recidivism is much lower when measured over the first 12 months, measured at around 40% (according to a study conducted by the University of Birmingham).
Why is the prison system in the United Kingdom still far from the ideal it aims to achieve?
Although the government in the United Kingdom has shown initiative with regards to rehabilitation during incarceration, critics may argue that there is a lot more to be done. The Norwegian government has taken the steps to improve rehabilitation in their prison system using what is now known as the ‘import model’. This model withdraws the freedom of movement from convicted criminals but it ensures that all prisoners have full access to the Norwegian welfare system. This means that most prisoners enjoy access to education, goods and services, paid work, as well as physical and/or psychological support from specialists. Prisons in Norway also tend to reverse the consensus of punishment within the prison. One of the main principles of the Norwegian model is that imprisonment is the punishment for a convicted criminal and that any further punishment whilst being in prison hinders the rehabilitation that convicts require before their release back into society. Furthermore, due to Norway’s maximum sentence of 21 years, the reintegration of convicted criminals into society is essential. The current description of Norway’s incarceration system suggests that it is the best operational rehabilitation model. One of Norway’s largest maximum-security incarceration facilities is Halden Prison, which is acclaimed as one of the most humane prisons in the world. The capacity is 252 inmates and the cost per inmate is around £98,000 annually, making it one of the most expensive prisons in the world as well. Most sources have measured the recidivism rate in Norway to be around 20%, which is around half of that in the United Kingdom.
What is the reason for this disparity?
The United Kingdom and Norway are both classified as developed countries and economies. Therefore, it would be expected that the success rate of both jurisdictions is at a similar degree. However, many underlying causes have an impact on the successful reintegration of prisoners into society. For example, one of the active variables that determines the crime rate before the recidivism rate is the number of people that suffer from poverty. According to calculations done by Westminster, around 14.5 million people live in relative poverty in the United Kingdom (after including housing costs). The number of people living in relative poverty before the addition of housing costs is 11 million, a number that is significantly higher than Norway’s mere 0.5% of the population. In addition, the size of the population can statistically have an impact on the crime rate. In Norway, the population is only just over 5.3 million, in comparison to the United Kingdom’s 66.6 million population, the occurrence of crime would naturally be higher in the United Kingdom. Although convictions are decreasing (according to the Crown Prosecution Service) there are still over 1 million convictions per year, this is around a fifth of the total population in Norway. Despite all the reasons that have been mentioned, there seems to be an extensive psychological rationale that plays an important role in the complication of this issue.
Suzanna Brodie is a Psychotherapist and Counsellor that has worked with the Forward Trust in a male prison for 18 months as a drugs and alcohol practitioner, and she is willing to share her insight:
“In my experience from working with people with addiction, the underlying cause is trauma. Addiction and prison sentences are interlinked and there are not enough resources to get to the root of the problem, which often lies in unhealed wounds from childhood. During group therapy and 1-1’s the guys began to relate to one another and lessen the shame of their past, and from this the healing began to take place…
..I witnessed an amazing sense of unity and trust being formed over their six month programme. Prison is a very oppressive and for many, a dangerous environment, and it can be hard to trust anyone in such a difficult place. Not all managed to complete the programme but those that made it to their graduations, I believe, had a much higher hope of not reoffending. They began to understand themselves and their actions, what their external and internal triggers were, in order to self-regulate better. They took responsibility for their crimes and for their lives and began to forgive themselves, which is what you essentially need in order to stop the cycle of addiction.”
So what does this mean?
The overall resource expenditure on prisons and inmates in the United Kingdom amounted to over £3 billion at a cost of £41,000 per prisoner (annually). This is almost half of what the Norwegian government spends on its prisoners. Prison reform has previously been a topic of discussion in Parliament. The most recent inquiry took place in 2015, resulting in the formation of the first part of an upcoming prison reform bill. Due to the highly intricate nature of the underlying causes of offending, as well as the high costs involved in the rehabilitation of offenders, it is not likely for prisoners to experience an overhaul of the incarceration system any time soon. Furthermore, the limitations of the current system are not caused by variables that are present in similar jurisdictions. Factors like a flawed justice system, the misconduct of prison staff, and excessive privatisation can be reasons for this disparity – but in this comparison, it does not play a highly active role.