Prison reform

On Monday I launched new plans to reform prisons.  I want to see an end to automatic early release at the half way point of sentences.  Instead there should be minimum terms and prisoners should earn their release by their good behaviour.  Prisons should be paid a premium if they can reduce re-offending.  And community sentences should be made much tougher, with offenders having to wear fluorescent overalls while on unpaid work, and benefit docked for every day they don't turn up.

Prisoners should work and receive training in prison, to help prepare them for the world of responsibility on their release.  Recently I visited an innovative project at Ford Prison, where a local firm is training prisoners and outsiders in skills they will need to become decorators.

It's a pity that these positive initiatives are obscured by Ford's dismal record on absconds.  The situation has improved, in that only one offender is now walking out a week rather than two, but it's still not good enough.

Last week we learnt that 35 prisoners who absconded from Ford Prison in the last four years have never been recaptured.  The Prison Service's defence is staggering - Ford performs averagely on escapes when compared with other open prisons.  So because other prisons lose just as many offenders, we're all meant to feel better.

One of the problems is that unsuitable prisoners are being transferred to open prisons like Ford because other jails are over-crowded.  Last week the Independent Monitoring Board warned that Ford has lost its focus of preparing inmates for release back into the community, and has instead become a holding centre for short-term prisoners.

Over-crowding has also prompted ministers to release 282 prisoners early from Ford.  We need more cells, which is why I pledged to increase capacity by 5,000 places.  But these should be prisons with a purpose - dedicated to reducing re-offending so that we can break the cycle of crime.

Michelle Taylor