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Published in the Telegraph 18.05.2016
When we send our children to school, we expect them to get an education. Should we not similarly expect that those we send to young offender’s institutions (YOIs) should leave rehabilitated?
Changes to policing – such as scrapping arrest targets and antisocial-behaviour orders (ASBOS), plus more effective and collaborative interventions by local authorities, the police and probation services – have led to the number of youngsters being locked up falling by 64% since 2009. It is right that only the most serious offenders now end up behind bars: that seven out of ten of those who do go on to reoffend shows, however, that we still have a stubborn recidivism problem which we are yet to crack.
Violence and gang culture pervade YOIs and the numbers show that the custodial experience often fails to eradicate criminal behavioural tendencies as we would hope. Feltham YOI, labelled “unacceptably violent” by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, is particularly bad: 85% of inmates reoffend within a year – hardly value for money considering the state could educate them at prestigious boarding schools for less. We have a fiscal and moral obligation to see taxpayers money deployed more effectively, which is why it is timely that a radical programme of prison reform will form a key pillar of the Government’s agenda over the next year, as set out in today’s Queen’s Speech.
Since becoming Justice Secretary, Michael Gove has been applying his trademark reforming zeal to a ‘lock em up’ debate which has long been stale. Drawing inspiration from his visit to ultra-conservative Texas, where a ‘rehabilitative revolution’ has produced annual savings of $444 million since it began a decade ago, Michael recognises the value of investing heavily in rehabilitative programmes. The results in Texas have been remarkable: three prisons and nine of their fourteen youth offender units have been closed since 2005. They are simply no longer needed.
How has this been possible? The ‘graduates’ of one initiative that teaches adult Texan prisoners how to be entrepreneurial have proven two-thirds less likely to reoffend than their prison contemporaries. Six have even gone on to establish companies worth more than a million dollars upon release.
Another resource intensive and ‘emotionally painful’ scheme for juvenile Texans guilty of violent crimes – including murder – centred on developing acceptance and empathy, alongside vocational and educational classes, has proven that individuals facing twenty-plus years behind bars can, within a few years, be readied for a second chance in society. I believe this shows why the Prime Minister is absolutely right when he talks of prisoners as “potential assets”.
We are about to have the biggest shake up of our penal system since Victorian times; a part of which will see six prisons given control over their budgets. Governors will have greater scope to invest in educational and rehabilitative programmes of their choosing. Now is the time to embrace the Texan notion of ‘justice reinvestment’ and to look at the well-documented role sport can play in promoting desistance from crime. Fortunately for prison governors, Saracens Rugby Club, the newly crowned champions of Europe, already have a blueprint of how this can be put into practice – literally.
Working with 30 Feltham inmates per year, community coaches from the club’s Foundation deliver an intensive programme called ‘Get Onside’ which uses rugby, and its values, as a vehicle for change. Participants work through a ten week educational and personal development programme – leading to qualifications and an accredited coaching award – alongside daily rugby sessions. Excellent behaviour is a pre-requisite for continued involvement. Better discipline, self-awareness, humility and honesty have almost always been the results.
After graduates leave Feltham, the Saracens Foundation offers them work opportunities on match days, provides mentors to help them with reintegration and works closely with organisations that offer support with issues like housing, employment and welfare. Many have continued to play rugby for amateur clubs in their community – a valuable additional support network.
Since ‘Get Onside’ began, only 7 of its 93 graduates have gone on to reoffend. Set against Feltham’s average recidivism rate of 85%, it is clear the £30,000 annual cost of the programme provides an excellent return on investment. Results keep on improving, too. Only two participants from the last two cohorts of thirty have reoffended and more than half are now in full time employment. Many of the rest are in education. These young men are no longer taking from society – they’re adding to it.
The Justice Secretary told the House of Commons recently that the purpose of our penal system should be “to keep people safe by making people better”. If the social reform agenda laid out today is to succeed with some of our most recalcitrant young offenders, a closer look at what can be achieved by harnessing the values that underpin sport – and rugby in particular – would be an excellent place to start.