Prison closures signal progress on youth rehabilitation

The announcement of prison closures across the UK has caused controversy, but it’s not all bad news, explains Caspar Walsh

As a kid I wandered through many a lino’d corridor of mostly Victorian, clearly out-of-date UK prisons in dire need of closure. My father’s crimes led him to many stays at her Majesty’s pleasure, not his. His experience became my experience and led me to my own life behind bars; as a visitor, a prisoner, a support worker, and finally a journalist and writer in residence.

Having a cell door close on me at 16 years old changed me forever and I hated being locked up. But the truth is, we need prisons. Secure, safe environments where individuals, having proven without doubt to be a threat to society, need to be ‘held’ until they have proven they are no longer a threat and they have something positive to offer.

The threat I posed was as a drug dealer. My time quickly served, I was offered a new route to a life free from crime. There must be opportunities for individuals to address their crimes, their impact and root causes.

Write to Freedom, the award-winning charity I founded in 2008, is one of many mentoring organisations that will be directly affected by the announcement, in January this year, of the closure of nine prisons throughout the UK. The announcement of the closure of the young offender institution, HMP and YOI Ashfield, will end a nine-year working relationship. This relationship led to the creation of a BBC Radio 4 docu-drama, 15 pre-release residential courses on Dartmoor – with over 60 young men graduating through our wilderness and writing programme – and dozens of highly successful writing workshops within the prison itself, involving hundreds of students.

Despite this, the closure of Ashfield is good news. It signifies a sea change within the judicial system. Sentencing appears to be shifting focus. Judges are increasingly seeing the value of keeping young people out of prison and in society. This is where Write to Freedom will focus its new programmes.

Unwarranted incarceration only breeds more incarceration. Returning time and time again to a life behind bars solidifies a belief that prison is the individual’s only destiny and there is no getting out. Appropriate community sentencing is clearly and increasingly the more enlightened option.

At last we are seeing changes that signal hope for the future and for the continued reduction in youth crime. As we see empty beds appearing in young offender institutes across the country, logic follows that the misspent money would be better diverted into community-based projects.

But if the closure of YOI’s leads to young people being swallowed up into proposed new ‘Titan prisons’, I would send an urgent caution: stick to the analogy that oversized classrooms simply don’t work. It would be a massive backward step away from the progress being made on so many levels within the criminal justice system. Small is indeed beautiful, and wise.

Our approach to youth crime now incorporates a new dimension, that of a greater public awareness of the bigger picture; of our individual responsibilities to those who have fallen through the cracks. The way we treat those in prison, whether we are family, friends, custody officers, judges or fellow inmates, is a direct reflection of who we are and how we see and value ourselves.

As long as dysfunction in family and community life remain a part of the condition of society and the subsequent kick-back of crime and violence prevails, we will have to keep incarceration open as a route to rehabilitation. But sending young men and women to prison must be the last act in ensuring a society safe from the affects of crime on us all.