Prisons with a purpose

Of the 141 prisons in England and Wales, more than 30 are over 100 years old - and almost one in six are more than 150 years old.

Last week I visited Brixton prison - a local, remand jail built in 1819 serving the courts of south London. Prisons like this represented the cutting edge of contemporary design in their day.

Today, the conditions are little short of shocking. Space is limited, there are no workshops and only a
quarter of the inmates are engaged in any purposeful activity at all.

Labour has ignored every warning about rising prison numbers and failed to provide adequate capacity. Of the 141 prisons in England and Wales, 92 are overcrowded and 14 are holding at least 50 per cent more prisoners than they were designed for. There are more than 17,000 prisoners doubling up in cells designed for one. Prisons are awash with drugs.

Faced with this crisis, Gordon Brown's preferred route is not to ensure the necessary additional jail capacity and rehabilitation programmes, but to release 25,000 prisoners early and water down sentences. The courts' powers to imprison offenders are to be restricted.

Tony Blair at least talked about being tough on crime. Gordon Brown's strategy to reduce prison overcrowding is to give criminals a break.

Some say we should lock offenders up and effectively throw away the key.

Others say that we should reduce the prison population through far more use of community sentences. Both positions are wrong. Prison is already largely reserved for serious, violent and persistent offenders.

We desperately need a new approach, one which accepts the role of prison in dealing with crime in an increasingly violent society, but also recognises that the current prison system isn't working.

Labour has wasted billions by presiding over soaring reconviction rates and imposing a national offender management bureaucracy. We can unlock resources by realising the development potential of our biggest, oldest and worst prisons and building smaller modern jails designed to deliver effective rehabilitation programmes.

The immediate goal should be to reduce the reconviction rate, not the prison population. Special secure units should get prisoners off drugs and treat mentally-ill offenders. We need prisons with a purpose, providing education, training and work programmes to prepare inmates for the outside world.

Labour's approach to prisons is bankrupt. It is the Conservatives who have the vision, radicalism and determination to drive penal reform for the 21st Century, to break the cycle of re-offending and make Britain a safer place.

Michelle Taylor