Fewer prisoners, better rehabilition – learning from abroad

As Parliament goes into recess for two weeks, I’m heading away first to UK, then to Northern Europe. The purpose of my trip, somewhat unusually, is to visit and learn more about prisons and prison systems.

Our system of incarceration is failing, and failing badly. We are spending about three times as much on locking people away as we were a decade ago. The prison muster is at an historic high, fast approaching 10,000. The Department of Corrections’ goal of reducing reoffending by 25% has generated a reduction of barely more than 6%. The cause of that reduction arguably has as much to do with demographics and other factors as it has with any changes to policy or practice.

The government’s ‘solution’, announced with much fanfare several years ago, was the introduction of a private operator into the network. That too has failed, in spectacular fashion.

There are wonderful people working very hard in our prisons to try and achieve better outcomes, but the odds are stacked against them. At many sites, morale is in decline.

If we continue to do what we have done, we can expect to get the same outcomes. The purpose of my trip is to look at examples or models that are producing much better results, and to see what lessons we might learn to adopt and adapt to our own unique context.

Earlier this year, the British government launched a prison reform programme. I’m interested to see what motivated that, and what the programme entails.  They already have an independent prison inspectorate and a Criminal Case Review Commission, both of which I believe we would do well to emulate. I’ll be meeting with representatives from both of those bodies to discuss how they’re structured and how they function.

The next stop is Norway, a country that contradicts the idea that a ‘soft on crime’ attitude is just a recipe for re-offending. Few people in Norway go to prison, and even fewer reoffend – in part thanks to the strong emphasis on rehabilitation. I’ll be visiting one of their prisons, their training academy for prison officers, their probation service, and other fixtures in the overall system.

The third country on my ‘whistle stop’ tour is Finland, a country that, within the space of a few decades, went from having one of the highest rates of incarceration in Europe to one of the lowest.

I’m not expecting to find any silver bullets along the way. But I do think that observing and the underlying principles and practices of systems that have been more successful than at reducing reoffending and the costs of imprisonment will give us a steer on how we can do better.

I’ll be posting with some initial observations, thoughts and impressions as the journey unfolds, so watch this space!

Follow me through Europe

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