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Let’s not go to Angola: a glimpse of the costs and benefits of prison reform

14 November 2007

4:53 PM

14 November 2007

4:53 PM

Is prison reform an economic issue, as well as a moral and social one? Well, if it’s uppermost in my mind and this column, then it must be — and it holds both of those positions this week not so much in response to the news that ex-jailbird Jonathan Aitken is to head a Tory ‘taskforce’ on the subject, but because I too have recently spent time inside. In fact I spent last Saturday morning in HM Prison Kirklevington Grange in Cleveland — where I was startled to find half the inmates had gone out for the day.

Kirklevington is a Category C closed prison, which means it has a high fence and locked gates, but it is also one of only three specialist resettlement prisons in England. Prisoners within the last three years of longer sentences can apply to be transferred there, and if they show sufficient willingness to clean up their act, they are allowed out on day-release to work, study or visit their families.

The emphasis of the regime is on personal responsibility, and it all felt genuinely positive. Officers and inmates were clearly on amiable terms. The white-collar fraudster sitting next to me at lunch (a spot of trouble with Customs and Excise over a container-load of cigarettes, I gathered) said the food was much better than in his two previous prisons. The governor, Alan Richer, told me that his annual running costs, at £18,000 per inmate, are a good deal lower than those of a high-security prison. The long-term saving to the taxpayer of resettling a former criminal so that he is neither a burden on the state nor a threat to his fellow citizens is much more difficult to measure, but at this modest price it is surely well worth the investment. Yet there are only 3,000 resettlement places for a prison population of 80,000 and rising, and most politicians’ idea of a progressive prison policy is one which builds more and more prisons in order progressively to bang up more and more law-breakers, mostly young men, thus keeping them off the streets and out of the voters’ consciousness. That way, you might say, lies Angola.

Angola? I spent Saturday afternoon in Durham Castle listening to a remarkable man called Burl Cain, warden of one of America’s largest prisons. In the Louisiana state penitentiary at Angola — a remote tract beside the Mississippi so named for the origin of the slaves who once picked cotton on it — Mr Cain has custody of more than 5,000 prisoners, three quarters of them black and 90 per cent of them destined to die in jail because Louisiana insists that life means life, even for three-strikes-and-you’re-out life sentences for lesser crimes than murder. Here resettlement is a rare occurrence and hope is a rare commodity. But Cain achieves more moral reinvigoration than you might think possible inside the fence through a regime which combines rodeos and family days with heavy doses of Southern Baptist Bible-bashing.

It all sounded strange to British sensibilities, but this was, I admit, the first day I had ever spent contemplating issues of crime and punishment at such close quarters. The banter of the lads in the Kirklevington canteen, and Burl Cain’s story of a Baptist convert nicknamed Bishop who had been released from Angola after serving 51 years, made a big impression on me. Some of you will harrumph at this juncture that concern for the banged-up criminal should rank a distant second behind concern for the criminal’s victims. I agree: but it is also blindingly obvious that the best way to protect the criminal’s potential future victims and their property, and to save ourselves the cost of banging him up again and again, is to try to make sure he leaves prison the first time with an employable skill and some hope and idea of a more responsible, settled life. If Mr Aitken is skilful enough to present his proposals in terms of value for taxpayers’ money as well as moral values, he may find a more sympathetic audience.

A sentence for speculators

On the way to jail I filled up the 4×4 with diesel at 104.7 pence per litre, and it made me so cross that I almost asked to be put in an ‘adjudication’ cell (grim reminder of Kirklevington’s earlier role as a juvenile detention centre) to cool down. But I wasn’t sure who to be angry with. There’s myself of course, for the crime of owning a 4×4. There’s Gordon Brown and his puppet Chancellor — about whom Allister Heath holds forth so eloquently this week — for robbing me of more than £40 per full tank in excise duty and VAT, yet spending almost none of it on transport improvements that might encourage me to cut my mileage.

Then there’s dreary old King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and his jumbo-jet-loads of princely henchmen, for owning so much oil and doing so little good for the world and their own people with the proceeds of it. Indeed, there is the whole Opec circus, meeting this weekend, for failing to give the right signals about matching supply to demand in such a way as to hold crude-oil barrel prices within a range, now generally said to be $60–80, which is compatible with stable growth in the world economy — stable growth being, of course, the most beneficial long-term state of affairs for Opec members as well as the rest of us. And finally, there are the ‘international speculators’ whom many economists blame for the last $20 of the current spike towards an unprecedented $100 a barrel — a rise which bears little relation to underlying patterns of actual demand, but which threatens serious economic damage if the price does not come down again soon.

The favoured method of hedge funds and other sophisticated financial players these days is to scour the horizon for markets which are both liquid and volatile and in which it is possible to place huge, leveraged bets. As we learned here recently, that’s what has pushed grain prices skywards. Now — driven by the availability of new derivative products and exchange-traded funds — ‘oil up’ is the big play. This column usually has more sympathy for market players than criminals, but I’m beginning to think we’d all be better off if the hedge fund community was sent on a temporary exchange visit to Angola.

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