In my experience the system fails prisoners. The lack of rehabilitation encourages drug abuse, violence and crime.
Prison makes a lot of people worse. Locking people up for petty crimes just puts them in an environment where everyone glorifies criminal behavior. And it shows them how to get away with worse things.
The lifers taught me how to make alcohol using bread, orange juice, sugar and the heat from the pipe in my cell. They showed me how to make a phone charger from a kettle wire and how to hot wire a car. I’ve never stolen a car for myself, but when I got out my friend asked me to hot wire one for him and I did it.
In prison you’re mixing with a lot of people who have a point to prove – especially in young offender institutions. It’s all about who’s the biggest man on the wing.
A lot of violence occurs – particularly in the showers. When I was in Feltham, I ended up in a fight with a Muslim because I was wearing rosary beads. I said: “I’m a Catholic, and what?” but it was the wrong attitude. They got a china mug from the jailer’s office and smashed it on to the back of my head. I’ve still got the scar.
Then there are the drugs. People who have never experienced them before start taking them. I was in a cell with one guy who had never taken heroin, but he asked me to get him some because he was so bored. There’s nothing else to do in a cell. People need to experience some sort of high.
People tend to generalize criminals, but we all have different things going on. Some don’t deserve to be punished. I was born into care; people who grow up in that system miss out on a lot of love and you start seeking acceptance from the wrong sort of people. Some people get caught up in drugs and do things they wouldn’t do otherwise – it affects their mentality. I’d say three quarters of the people I met in Wormwood Scrubs had a crack or heroin problem.
Something’s not working with prison because people keep coming back. Every time I come out I promise myself I’ll never go back but I somehow get caught up in things. I guess it’s because I don’t have a complete structure in my life.
When I came out of prison the first time I found myself in a hostel. It was really hard to budget. I’d get my giro through the post but if you want to eat and go out it soon goes. You feel you have no money and robbing people is a way to solve that.
Before prison the jobs I got were quite good – the best I can do now is be a crew member at McDonald’s for $4.25 an hour. I have more ambition than that. I’m gutted that at 22, I can’t do the jobs I was doing when I was 18. People judge you because of where you’ve been.
Prison has some advantages. It keeps dangerous people off the streets; it serves as a deterrent for some; it can rehabilitate others. But a lot of people are put into prison for petty stuff and it just doesn’t work.
Prison should be a place for containing violent people, but for those who aren’t there could be community sentences, fines, curfews, tags. We could put people in open prisons; prisoners would have to be home by 8pm but they could get into a routine of working every day so it’s easier to adjust when they come out.
We could open more residential drug clinics to get people out of prison and into treatment. Of course
these alternatives wouldn’t work for everyone – but they could work for maybe a third of people who are in prison now.
Once people are out of prison we should get them into secure housing, conditional on maintaining some form of work or training. We need to help form a structure in criminals’ lives. If we don’t, we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t change.
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