Right from Wrong; Criminal; The Life Inside review – the problem with our prisons | Society books

In the past 30 years, prison numbers in England and Wales have doubled to almost 90,000, the biggest per head of the population in western Europe, largely as a result of successive claiming governments that longer sentences will reduce crime. That the current regime is now planning to invest a further £4bn in yet more prison places suggests that the anticipated reduction hasn’t materialised. Yet we will continue to spend roughly £40,000 a year per head on keeping people locked up when, within a year of release, about 50% of them will reoffend.


In any good prison system there has to be a balance between punishment and rehabilitation. That ours is so out-of-kilter should be another national scandal. Instead, the new expansion plans – with details to date few and far between – were clearly intended by the Conservatives as a vote-winner. Locking more and more people up, even if it doesn’t prevent crime, is another addiction Britain has caught from the US.

How to wean us off this madness? Well, these three books, each from a different vantage point on our prisons, make a good start. They lay out, in a personal and impassioned way, the human cost of such a reliance on punishment and so little belief in rehabilitation.

Jacob Dunne was 19 when he was jailed for manslaughter in 2011. Having struggled at school – he had undiagnosed ADHD – he had fallen in with a drug-dealing gang on the deprived Meadows estate in Nottingham. Getting into scraps was part of its way of life. On the last day of July, he had jumped to the aid of a fellow gang member after an altercation broke out in the city centre. He threw a single punch at James Hodgkinson. As the 28-year-old trainee paramedic fell, he hit his head and died as a result of his injuries.

While in prison, Dunne was contacted by Hodgkinson’s parents, Joan and David, who were at a loss to understand his motives in killing their son. Slowly, slowly, a developed process that is known as restorative justice, bringing together victims and perpetrators. Tried and tested, but far too little used in prisons because it is starved of funding, it convinced Joan in particular that another young life should not be wasted after losing her boy. She encouraged Dunne to go back to education.

He did, and thrived, moving on to university, where he graduated with a first. Today, he is married, has two small children and is hard at work to prevent others going down the same road as he did. By seeking to understand rather than punish Dunne, the parents of his victim changed his life – and set the rest of us a challenge.

His engagement memoir, Right from Wrongfollows on from an equally compelling 2020 Radio 4 series, The Punch, presented by Dunne, which won a number of awards. The written format, however, provides him more scope to reflect on what lay behind his crime. He argues cogently, coherently and from experience that to have choices in life you also have to have chances.

A prisoner leaving a police van: 'about 50% will reoffend'
A prisoner leaving a police van: ‘about 50% will reoffend’. Photograph: Mark Harvey/Alamy

“It is sad,” he writes, “how attractive and appealing criminality can be when you have no direction and no hope—only a festing disdain for a system that offered people like me nothing other than what they were born into: a substandard existence in an English housing estate whose inhabitants did nothing but perpetuate this fatalistic view of the world.”

Angela Kirwin’s encounter with prison was from the other end of the system, as a social care worker in six jails over the period of a decade. Where Dunne’s approach is careful and restrained, hers is more breathless and broad-brush, as she recalls those individuals she tried to get back on the right path – despite minimal resources and lack of support from those higher up the ladder in the Prison Service.

“Yes, I worked with rapists, murderers, the downright dangerous. But most of the men loiting on the landings aren’t like this… Theirs are the stories that never make news. Because if they did, they’d show in stark relief just how pointless, just how failing, our prisons are.”

Criminal, she says, is her attempt to change the conversation about prisons. The book is at its best when she strips away the physical and psychological walls that separate those inside from the communities that one day they will rejoin, however long ministers make their sentences. While some might find her language off-putting – she chooses to use the words routinely thrown around on prison wings to give her accounts “a real-world impact” – her plea for society to be more compassionate and prisons kinder, safer places, is heartfelt and humane. Like Dunne, she knows that such an approach works.

In The Life Inside, Andy West adopts a more high-minded tone, as befits one who teaches philosophy in prisons, but he can see both sides of the coin as the son, nephew and brother of prisoners. What emerges powerfully from his account is the potential that many prisoners, educationally and academically, but which has been possessed in their teenage years for all sorts of reasons (there is such a strong connection between growing up in care or being excluded from school and going to prison). Yet prison education runs on a shoestring budget, sits bottom of the management hierarchy in jails, and finds it hard to recruit committed, inspiring teachers such as West to take on the challenge.

There is wisdom in each of these accounts, but most of the needed reforms their stories throw up have been heard before and rejected or – worse – ignored by ministers, even when they have commissioned the reports that contain them. That wilful refusal to engage common sense, I fear, is more widespread. Start explaining the crisis in prisons in the public arena, as I find myself doing on occasion, and you most people know and get the argument already. They just aren’t prepared to put themselves out to act on that knowledge. Let’s hope the collective persuasive power contained in these first-hand accounts starts to chip away at such reluctance.

Peter Stanford is director of the Longford Trust for prison reform

Right from Wrong: My Story of Guilt and Redemption by Jacob Dunne is published by HarperNorth (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

Criminal: How Our Prisons Are Failing Us All by Angela Kirwin is published by Trapeze (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family and Philosophy by Andy West is published by Picador ($16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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