LIVE BLOG: What are the alternatives to prison?

Experts discuss the radical alternatives to imprisonment, and whether they could really work 

Abandoned derelict obselete prison

Will our prisons ever become obsolete like this? Source: Ken Fager

Have you ever considered there could be a different way of running our justice system? One in which prisons were barely needed, or even obsolete? How would this system work and is it really feasible?

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) held a discussion on all these questions in an exciting workshop on Tuesday 21 April, 2-4pm.

Prison Watch UK were liveblogging from the event. You can catch up on all the events and speakers below, but here are some highlights of ideas and suggestions for alternatives:

  • Decriminalisation would reduce the prison population and the harm it does to the offender and their families.
  • A more equal society, with better representation and social justice would reduce the number of people wanting to break the law.
  • Prisons are not effective deterrents.


That’s a wrap!

A busy and exciting discussion. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies closes the talk by asking who would like another follow up talk. The demand was high.


Closing statements from ‘What are the alternatives to prison?’ discussion

Dr Deborah Drake, The Open University

One of the things achieved, and that came across from everyone’s contributions, was closing the distance between ourselves and people we may see as criminals, and between different perspectives.

Dr John Moore, The University of the West of England

I have a lot more energy than when I came!

Rebecca Roberts, senior policy associate, CCJS

I’m leaving with more hope than I had beforehand!


Back to John Moore

  • We need to see fundamental changes in confronting colonialism and in the constructs of masculinity.

Masculinity isn’t going to be overturned easily but those fundamental changes have to happen to have a just society.


One man suggests gardening!

  • Engaging children in projects has made the whole area safer without the need for calling in police.

We are a more powerful community for drawing attention to the fact we are all responsible for the safety of our streets


Ellie from Howard League for Penal Reform

  • One alternative is to re orientate our services: how can we reduce and repair harm, rather than punish people?


Will McMahon moves conversation from problems with the criminal justice system onto alternatives to prisons

  • Bethan, Safer London Foundation: commends Exit program –  Intensive Alternative to Custody
  • Audience member: We ought to be talking to the people who have not chosen prisons and ask them about their alternatives.
  • Audience member: Drug and alcohol addiction is an important factor in people coming into the criminal justice system.
  • Audience member recommends Glasgow 218 project.

The people with the power are the courts and over 70% of men and 80% of women in prison for offences that are not violent, so they shouldn’t really be there.

  • Scotland resident: Scotland has a children’s hearing system, separate from the usual system. Avoids people being labelled and stigmatised in the first place.


Audience member on board of Women in Prison and involved in restorative justice in Surrey:

If you don’t have a fair society, you can’t expect people not to shoplift, to want trainers that everyone else in their class has, to tear up the town. How can they expect us to obey the law if they don’t provide the infrastructure to help us to?


More audience contributions on topic of why prisons don’t work

  • Audience member from Centre for Justice Innovation: Evidence shows people who trust police tend to abide by the law. So what does a fair police force look like? It’s one that reflects society.
  • Audience member: if people don’t think they’re reflected in politics then they’re less inclined to abide by the law.


Dr John Moore, The University of the West of England

What is driving incarceration is not individual behavior but something systematic. The system is sucking people in – people are not throwing themselves in.

  • Public attitudes to criminal justice are formed by what happens in soaps.
  • We know what works: it’s a more just society.


Audience member called Roses

  • We need to hold institutions, society and ourselves to account too.


Clare McGregor, Coaching Inside and Out

  • The alternatives need to be about social justice as well as criminal justice.

We know our own lives better than anyone else. We are all best placed to change our own lives


Deb Coles, co-director of Inquest

  • When people come out from prison they are often even more damaged.
  • Families of those who die never recognised as being victims.

We are incarcerating people in places that can lead them to death.


Back to the audience…

Audience member from project 507:

  • It’s difficult to have these conversations without talking about money.
  • There’s the possibility of getting rid of hundreds of thousands of jobs if we get rid of prisons.
  • We can talk about best practice until we’re blue in the face but we need to talk about the money.


Will McMahon responds to audience input:

It’s about so much more than prisons, it’s about what kind of society do we want to live in?


Time for audience contributions…

  • Andy, Consortium of Therapeutic communities: The solution doesn’t have to magical or economic. Language important too.
  • Martin, interested in restorative justice: Need to remember it’s not just criminals that are victims of poverty, but the well-heeled criminals and how we deal with those too. Deterrence doesn’t work, we need preventative measures at a different level.


Dr Deborah Drake, The Open University

  • Our society is used to the idea that good society includes a school, a hospital and a prison. But what about other societies?
  • Prisons have consistently failed to solve the problems they purport to be there for.
  • There is no relationship between crime rates and imprisonment rates – they rise and fall independently of one another.
  • Prisons do little to deter people from harming one another.
  • There are two initiatives we need to consider:
    • More forums like this one, with a diverse debate on problems and solutions
    • Bridging the gap between individuals communities and policy-makers.


    Dr John Moore, The University of the West of England

    Dr Moore starts by asking how much society needs a criminal justice system, and does it need it just because it’s what we’re used to?

    Key points:

    • Involving the police and criminal justice system takes us away from a more equal society.
    • Need to think of the term ‘victims’ in wider contexts
    • Alternatives to prisons foster better economic growth
    • There is no magic bullet, no simple solutions
    • We don’t have a national insurance system that allows the victims of crime to be compensated
    • We have given responsibility for justice over to the state and the state will abuse that for its own ends.


    The first speaker is Rebecca Roberts, senior policy associate at the CCJS.

    Key points:

    • We’re trying to think beyond just criminal justice.
    • Need to do more than fix the system – and I am not sure it can be fixed.
    • We want to downsize criminal justice across the board.
    • We need people from outside the criminal justice system to contribute too.

    Rebecca Roberts finishes by saying the CCJS doesn’t have all the answers and they hope the audience can contribute too.


    And we’re off…

    Will McMahon, deputy director at the CCJS, has welcomed everyone.

    This talk is about going beyond criminal justice looking and housing, social security, unemployment.


    Who is here today?

    There are a range of prison professionals, academics, practitioners and non-governmental organisations among others here today.

    The speakers are:

    Rebecca Roberts, senior policy associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies
    Dr Deborah Drake, The Open University
    Dr John Moore, The University of the West of England

    Click here for more information on the event.

2 Comments on “LIVE BLOG: What are the alternatives to prison?”

  1. There are some ideas at Ten points for a restorative blueprint.
    We need to look at aspects of the question separately.
    1. Physical crime prevention: locks, passwords, security guards, anti-fraud measures etc.
    2. Social crime reduction: create a fairer, more equal society, employment, youth facilities etc. ‘Justice re-investment’ could be included here.
    3. What to do with offenders when caught: hold them accountable for harm caused (especially if there is an individual victim), require reparation, but also remedy disadvantages (sub-standard eduction, addictions, lack of skills, lack of self-esteem, unemployment etc.)
    4. This response to be focused on including the offender in the community, not on deterrence. For deterrence, rely on increasing probability of being caught. Where possible, keep out of the CJS, for example by diversion, restorative justice, civil action etc. Not just ‘prison as a last resort’ but ‘criminal justice as a last resort’. Need to ensure that restorative justice is available everywhere, as in Norway and Northern Ireland.
    5. Avoid the word ‘punishment’ – use words like ‘offenders should take the consequences’, ‘make reparation’. Emphasise that community measures are also liberty-restricting sanctions
    6. Re-create Day Training Centres (a.k.a. Day Reporting Centres) – community-based centres providing training etc. (but with safeguards to prevent them being used in place of less restrictive measures).
    7. Recognise that some prisons will still be necessary, e.g. to enforce community sanctions, restrain the dangerous, but require that anyone sent to prison is sent for a stated purpose such as group therapy, anger management, alternatives to violence. Length of sentences should take account of needs of offender, not only seriousness of offence. Alternatively, they could be proportionate to offence as now, but suspended unless there was a specific reason such as liability to commit further serious offences (with safeguards as above in 6.).
    8. Need to address a major function of sentencing: ‘denunciation’, i.e. showing everyone how serious the offence was. Could be done by ‘points’, cf. motoring offences, but that would not be enough for serious offences. Could be measured as a period of time, but suspended (as above in 7.)
    9. Require any new law creating a new offence (or increasing a maximum penalty) to be accompanied by a statement of measures being introduced at the same time to prevent that offence (e.g. security devices for motor vehicles, public education for drunk driving.)
    10. Ensure that money saved by reducing the prison population is used to fund the community-based programmes that made the reduction possible (a different version of ‘payment by results!).


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