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Tuesday 22 October 2019
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How better prisons slash crime, save cash

Kiran Mathur Mohammed
Kiran Mathur Mohammed

Kiran Mathur Mohammed


What would you say if I told you there was a special school that taught crime? The core courses are run-of-the-mill: break-ins, theft, drugs. Then you graduate to exciting ones: murder, rape, guns.

Like most advanced education, prison gets more expensive by the day. Tuition, room and board costs at least $300,000 a year for each of the 4,000 students, according to government statistics.

But the pass rate is pretty good. Anywhere between 53 and 74 per cent of students successfully commit a crime in the three years after graduating. At last official count (back in 2010), we released more than 2,608 prisoners each year. That amounts to about 1,400 people who are just about guaranteed to commit a crime.

Apart from the cost in blood, there is the cost in treasure. We already know that crime costs us more than $5.2 billion a year (3.5 per cent of GDP). Eighty-five per cent of firms spend more than two per cent of their revenue on security.

There are many factors that feed crime, but our broken prisons are at the heart of them.

Despite the efforts of brave prisons officers led by Commissioner Gerard Wilson (too many of whom have attended murdered colleagues’ funerals), our prisons remain dark and brutal. More than half of prison officer jobs remain unfilled. Officers that remain are exhausted and overwhelmed; partially contributing to last week’s dramatic prison break.

With inmates packed as many as seven or eight to a cell, beatings, brutality and rape are common. Some cells have open sewers, and free defecation is common.

Rehabilitative programmes are thin on the ground. In most cases, inmates can’t work or gain anything beyond a basic secondary education. Legislation, one inmate reminded me, dates to the 19th century.

When almost everyone knows someone who has been murdered, attacked or robbed, it is understandable that the prevailing sentiment is “let them rot.” But like it or not, most inmates will be released. The question is whether they return to the vicious cycle, or not.

Other countries have managed to arrest it. Uruguay’s National Rehabilitation Centre has a rate of just 12 per cent, says Baillie Aaron of British NGO Spark. Norway’s recidivism rate is 20 per cent.

Recent experiments by a team of economists from Oslo and the US have proven that a large percentage of Norway’s success is due to its prison system. Long mocked for giving prisoners “luxury accommodation,” Norway is having the last laugh. Its prisons lower the probability of reoffending by 27 per cent.

What makes Norway different? Norway locks people up for shorter periods. It protects inmates with a policy of one inmate per cell. It fully separates petty offenders from more serious or violent offenders, putting them in different prisons with different conditions. Inmates have access to drug treatment, mental healthcare, and education and training programmes up to the tertiary level.

Crucially, newly released ex-convicts have access to a programme that helps them find jobs and access housing and social services.

Why spend more money on benefits for criminals while ordinary citizens suffer? The same team of economists explains. Spending on rehabilitation lowers reoffending, which saves criminal justice and court costs and the cost of crime to victims, while increasing employment.

To free up funds in parallel, we can pass the parole bill. Electronic monitoring will make parole easier and is cheaper than housing inmates. It will permit inmates to be a productive part of the economy and prepare them to re-enter society.

Electronic monitoring would also help to alleviate the great injustice and save millions in our remand system, where almost 2,700 inmates await trial. I spoke with two men who have waited for seven and eight years each while their trials drag on.

We can also allow inmates to work and sell products or services from inside prisons. Some could train as coders or graphic designers and work with computers. Part of the proceeds can be returned to the inmates, so they have something to fall back on when released. The rest can be used to help fund the prison system.

There is hope, embodied by patriots like Debbie Jacob. Last Saturday, I visited the debate team she coaches in the maximum-security prison. They made many of these suggestions themselves.

I was struck by their real desire to move on from their past lives when they returned “outside.” If more programmes like Jacob’s were put in place, how many more inmates might feel that way? And how many more of us would feel safer in our beds at night?

Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh

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