Community service is harder than prison, say offenders

By staff writers
June 8, 2011

Research published today (8 June) looks set to undermine common assumptions about crime and punishment, with the revelation that many offenders preferred a short prison term over a community sentence. The findings will challenge those who present community service as a soft option.

The Howard League for Penal Reform, who commissioned the research in collaboration with the Prison Governors’ Association (PGA), say this is the first research into the daily reality of those serving short prison sentences and those working with them.

The research is set to influence forthcoming legislation at a time of intense public debate on the value of short prison sentences.

A central finding of the report, No Winners: The reality of short term prison sentences, is that many prisoners preferred a short term prison sentence over a community sentence because it is easier to complete. Others considered community sentences to be more of a punishment.

The research revealed two distinct groups of prisoners: the first-timers and the revolving door prisoners. The research identified clearly distinct attitudes and responses to imprisonment as well as differential needs while in prison.

There were four overarching findings from the research.

Firstly, prisoners were keen to complete courses (for example anger management, enhanced thinking skills and offending behaviour) but reported that they were not available. Prisoners expressed frustration at this on the basis that they left prison the same as they were when they came in.

Secondly, serving a number of short prison sentences may reduce the ability of prisoners to take responsibility and leads them to believe that reoffending and a return to prison are inevitable.

Thirdly, the majority of prisoners reported the day-to-day reality of serving a short prison sentence to be boring, leading to disillusionment and demotivation.

Fourthly, many staff were upset at the damaging impact that short prison sentences could have on prisoners’ lives, especially where men had lost their homes, their jobs and it had led to family breakdown.

It was evident that the 'revolving door' prisoners often had little to look forward to on their release from prison. It was apparent that for some men their quality of life was better in prison than it was in the community. Prisoners said that they engaged with few activities and spent most of the time in their cell.

The Howard League and PGA are meeting today with members of the House of Commons Justice Select Committee to present the research.

The research was conducted for the Howard League and PGA by Julie Trebilcock of Imperial College, London. She worked with a team of retired prison governors in three adult male prisons holding prisoners serving short prison sentences of 12 months and under.

Interviews were conducted with 44 prisoners and 25 prison staff. This primary research was supported by an extensive online survey of PGA members and other key stakeholders.

Frances Crook, Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said, “We are failing victims, taxpayers and the whole community when people opt to go to prison for a short time as an easier option than facing up to their crimes in the community.

She explained, "Spending all day lounging on a cell bunk, particularly for those on short sentences, is the real ‘soft’ option. Community programmes can achieve many more positive outcomes than prison as they force people to understand the impact of their actions and do something to repair the damage caused by crime.”

She said that the challenge is to develop community sentences that are imposed immediately, carried out intensively and help to change lives.

Eoin McLennan-Murray, PGA President, insisted that prison governors have long known that short sentences are expensive to administer and have the poorest outcomes in terms of re-offending rates.

He suggested that the research has produced "a convincing case which argues at best for the abolition of short prison sentences and at worst for a dramatic reduction in their use".


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