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Is the core purpose of prison punishment or rehabilitation?

Maggie Fogarty reviews Radio 4's The Spark with QC Chris Daw who believes prisons do more harm than good...

Professional Social Work magazine - 15 October, 2020

A debate that has raged over the centuries and according to the various public surveys, the majority think that sentencing is too lenient and prisoners are getting off lightly.

As QC Chris Daw pointed out in this insightful Radio 4 programme The Spark it is a pervading narrative that doesn’t stack up. Prison sentences are getting longer, putting pressure on the prison system with the UK’s prison population almost doubling in the 26 years Chris Daw has been practising criminal law. As he sees it, the UK is moving towards a more US-style approach to sentencing and incarceration, with the emphasis more on punishment rather than rehabilitation.

Much of the programme discussion centres around the themes covered in Daw’s book ‘Justice On Trial’ where he argues that we should abolish ‘prisons’ as we currently understand them and replace them with a radically different system.

As the programme title suggests ‘The Spark’ is all about igniting debate and Daw certainly does this with his proposal for root and branch overhaul of our existing prison system - much of it still based on the centuries old model of incarceration inside buildings, many of which are dated and dangerously overcrowded,

Daw believes the current system not only isn’t working but is broken, failing to make society a safer place while putting vulnerable people both inside prison and in the wider community at risk. He points out that 69 per cent of the UK’s prison population are ‘non violent’ offenders, with many having mental health problems and are victims of abuse themselves. By putting already damaged people in prison environments likely to make things worse, where is the sense in that?

Having travelled around the world to research the differing ways of dealing with adult and young offenders, Daw takes the view that only the most dangerous prisoners – prolific rapists, violent offenders and the like - need to be kept away from society. For the majority, they can remain integrated within communities using modern surveillance techniques like retina scans, thumb prints and phone tracking. While not a fan of mass surveillance, Daw believes that it can play a role in keeping the majority of non-violent offenders within society while  taking  the pressure off  staff looking after the minority who need to be remain in ‘rehabilitation centres’ – his preferred term for prisons.

Citing the Norwegian model, Daw points out that even some serious offenders are housed in smaller accommodation units, (sometimes with family members staying over). with the emphasis on rehabilitation. Daw believes this is the model we should be looking to rather than the US one of long term incarceration and the focus on punishment.

Looking at the so-called ‘harder ’cases’ - interviewer Helen Lewis mentions Rose West, Charles Bronson, and Ian Huntley - Daw makes the point that there are only 60 or so prisoners serving ‘whole life’ sentences. The remainder will be released one day and most of these could be more effectively treated by tearing down the existing prison model, with more resources going into addiction treatment and mental health services.

Yes change will come at a large financial cost but then so does the current system. Daw makes a convincing argument for change but whether he will get the necessary political and popular backing, is the thorny question. Certainly a talking point programme and well worth listening back to – it is available on BBC Sounds for a year after the original September airing.

Maggie Fogarty is a former Social Work Today Jjournalist, TV producer and author. Her collection of short stories Shorts and Thoughts is available on. with half of all book proceeds going to the Social workers' Benevolent Trust