Crispin Blunt is right to have rescinded Jack Straw's order banning arts and comedy courses in prisons. I first wrote about this back in 2008...
So Jack Straw has banned prisoners at Whitemoor Prison from learning about how to write a comedy script or do stand up. They were taking part in an eight day course as part of an education programme. What harm can possibly be done by learning about comedy script writing and improvisation? I'd have thought learning how to diffuse potentially harmful situations by the use of humour was a good thing. Instead, Jack Straw has jerked his knee and responded to synthetic tabloid outrage. Not only that he's ordered an inquiry! you couldn't make it up.
Prison is a balance between punishment and rehabilitation. I don't believe in going soft on people in prison - but nor do I believe that activities which make them want to learn and develop should be discouraged.
And then last October I appeared in a cabaret at the Tory conference, the aim of which was to demonstrate how comedy can help in prisoner rehabilitation. I wrote...
Jack Straw cancelled all arts projects in HMP Whitemoor and issued a Prison Service Instruction to all Governors, telling them that, when making decisions about arts interventions, they must ensure projects “meet the public acceptability test” and consider how the activity might “be perceived if open to media scrutiny.”...
Surely if rehabilitation is to mean anything, the arts have a key role to play in helping prisoners discover some self esteem and maybe a talent they never thought they had. Our prison system is set up for punishment, but rehabilitation takes a back seat.
I hope under a Conservative government that will change. Being tough doesn't just mean locking people up and throwing away the key. A tough politician will take tough choices - and that means locking fewer people up and devoting more resources to preparing prisoners for life on the outside. Only in that way will reoffending rates drop.
The Daily Mail has predictably gone OTT and Downing Street are distancing themselves from Blunt, briefing that the speech wasn't properly cleared with them.
I wonder how many people who are slagging off Crispin Blunt today have read the actual text of his speech. Do youself a favour and click HERE to do so. The whole speech is a very good statement of aims for the new government with regard to the balance between rehab and punishment. But it is this para which has caused the uproar.
I want to mention one other proposal from Churchill that struck a chord with me. Churchill noted that
‘we have got a class of men in our prisons who need brain food of the most ordinary character.’
He notes that
‘There have from time to time been occasional lectures given in the prisons, and a few months ago the Somerset Light Infantry, quartered near, had their band in Dartmoor Prison and it played to the convicts. It was an amazing thing the effect which was produced on all these poor people, and their letters for a month after had been eloquent in recognition of the fact.’
I have to say that not all Members of the Commons were quite as enthusiastic about military music with one suggesting that:
‘The music will be an added punishment to some.’
But there is a serious point here. We recognise that arts activities can play a valuable role in helping offenders to address issues such as communication problems and low self-esteem and enabling them to engage in programmes that address their offending behaviour I confess before getting this job I was not aware of Prison Service Instruction number 50 of 2008, though was vaguely conscious of some row in the tabloids about offenders being recorded as enjoying themselves. As a measure it was typical of the last administration’s flakiness under pressure. At the slightest whiff of criticism from the popular press policy tended to get changed and the consequence of an absurd overreaction to offenders being exposed to comedy in prison was this deleterious, damaging and daft instruction. I’m pleased to have marked the actual day of the 100th anniversary of Churchill’s speech on Tuesday by rescinding it.
I'm glad he did that. It was the brave and the right thing to do.
So, go on, call me a woolly liberal, or a LibDem. It'll be water off a duck's back. We need to run our prisons policy very differently. It is not working, and we need to think more about the kind of person we put back into society at the end of their sentences. At the moment the majority can't read or write and they're hooked on drugs. Is it any surprise that they then reoffend? it's all very well saying that we should keep offenders in prison for longer, so they can't offend, but we will be heading for a situation where the prison population heads for 200,000. We simply cannot afford that, even if we thought it was a good idea. And it isn't. The key to lowering reoffending is to improve in-prison rehabilitation. And education via courses like arts and comedy courses is all part of it.