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  • Writer's picturePro Bono Society

Catalysing Better Decisions (Howard League for Penal Reform Prison Visits)


Constructive rehabilitation and positive re-integration very much appeared to be the central aim of the Her Majesty’s Young Offender Institution (HMYOI). Warmly welcomed by the staff, we immediately felt comfortable and at ease to ask questions freely about the system. The pre-conception of prison being a daunting, intimidating and perhaps scary place changed when walking around the premise. Although disciplinary structures form a core part of the system, it was clear that this is not the sole element of imprisonment, at least in the HMYOIs we visited.

There is the academic debate surrounding whether prison should serve to be a punitive or rehabilitative solution. The number of men, women and children sent to prison over the last three decades has more than doubled, leading to severe issues of overcrowding and consequential inefficiency. As the prison population grows, it does so at a disproportionate rate. There is not infinite capital and resources available to manage the population growth. As the Howard League fights for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison, rehabilitation is of significant interest. By rehabilitating inmates effectively, giving them new opportunities in which they can change and reform for the better, the aim is a decrease in the reoffending rate, helping to tackle issues of overpopulation and systematic shortcomings. It remains important to look through the crime to see the underlying drivers. The socio-economic background of many of the boys, although not an excuse, can sometimes provide an explanation. Once this is understood, the solution to reoffending can be better visualised, with measures in place to help build positive relationships and augment character change.

The measures in place showed the rehabilitation of the boys to be an inherent reality at both Werrington and Wetherby. The environment, one where the learners are treated with decency and dignity, forms the firm foundation for prisoner self-growth and motivation. The very term ‘learners’ as compared to ‘prisoner’ or ‘inmate’ gives the boys a sense that positive change is attainable and there is still life purpose, that there is reason for learning new skills and holding onto aspiration. It suggests that they are not defined by their crime, that they can learn from it and make better life choices. The diversity in learning opportunities for the boys was impressive. Barbering, tiling, painting, hospitality and even working with local rescue dogs. The real life transferable skills the boys take from such programmes helps set them up for life after release. For many of the boys, the qualifications they gain from their time in prison are their only qualifications, their lifelines. The new initiative with the dogs particularly stood out. A very popular programme with the boys, with lots of applications to be put on the scheme, the successful boys chosen for the programme were those who the staff deemed most likely to benefit from the interactions, often those with emotional trauma. The staff making careful assessments surrounding who should be offered a place on the scheme is a prime demonstration of their motivation to see the boys transformed.

This approach, although a work in progress, appears to counteract a negative self image and promotes an internal awareness of more enriching alternative choices.

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