In the Media

Keeping ex-offenders lawful needs a creative touch

PUBLISHED January 17, 2012

It might not play well with the public, but a new study backs up the theory that creative and sporting activities in prison can have an impact on reoffending

More than half of all crime in England and Wales is committed by people with previous convictions, and reoffending rates within the young adult prisoner population are the highest. We shouldn't be surprised. Standard prison life consists in the main of bang up, aggravation and boredom, interspersed with a smattering of so-called offending behaviour courses, teaching subjects such as enhanced thinking skills and victim empathy. The courses work for some but, for the majority, they represent little more than a tick in a box to accompany the crossed fingers behind the back when they go in front of the parole board.

For real change to happen, people in prison need to be challenged, for sure, but they also need to be helped, motivated and encouraged to believe that they can live a better way.

During the 20 years of a life sentence that I served behind bars I met thousands of people convicted of every type of crime, yet I never heard a single one saying they were proud for having caused harm and distress to others. Expressions of shame, guilt, remorse and embarrassment, on the other hand, were abundant ? as were good intentions for life after prison. I wasn't surprised when 97% of respondents to a prisoner crime reduction survey carried out in 2010 expressed a desire to stop offending. But always in short supply was the means to heal troubled and troublesome lives.

Creative activity is widely recognised as a powerful enabler of personal growth. Anecdotal evidence that the likelihood of reoffending is reduced through prisoner involvement in art, drama, music or sport is strong. "It is important that the wider community recognises that what goes on in a prison is very relevant to what happens after people are released," says Rosie Meek, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Southampton, whose evaluation report on the effectiveness of a crime desistance programme with sport at its focus is launched at Twickenham stadium on Friday. The study, in Portland young offender institution in Portsmouth, lasted two years and monitored young men serving various sentences who took part in rugby and football "academies".

A big problem whenever people in prison are allowed access to novel and ostensibly "fun" initiatives is the public perception that they are being rewarded instead of punished. Meek is adamant that the programme was tough going. "Football and rugby were at the core of the programme but [participants] also had to meet with victims of crime who would explain the impact that crime had on them and their families. In the classroom, they had to face up to their actions and talk about what they had done. These are young men who have been put through the standard prison programme and it hasn't worked."

Eighty one young men took part in the study. Of the 50 released over the past 18 months, only nine have reoffended or been recalled to prison, representing a reconviction rate of 18%, compared with a prison average of 48% after one year.

Prison represents justice to many victims of crime but it also has a duty to serve the potential victims of released prisoners. Policymakers should read this report carefully.

? Erwin James is a former life sentence prisoner and author of A Life Inside. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds