Last week our politicians and elements of the media were arguing about whether former Home Secretary Michael Howard was right or not when he said "prison works" at a Tory Party conference in ages gone by. Two people for whom it has not worked are Chris Brown and the man who killed him last week, Raoul Moat, now also deceased.
Mr Howard's view, seen as tough but nonetheless supported by most of both the Labour and Conservative parties, was challenged by the new Justice Secretary and (also) former Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke. Mr Clarke, who seems to have become a member of the Tory Party through a Gilbert & Sullivan type mix-up at birth, said that our prisons are overcrowded due to the use of short sentences and suggested it would be much better to let some of these people out.
Mr Moat killed Mr Brown and shot two other individuals shortly after being released from prison after serving an 18 week prison sentence for assault. Prior to his conviction Mr Moat had been arrested 12 times for assaults and other violent incidents.
The fact that Mr Moat committed his crimes just days after being released from prison suggests that in this case prison definitely did not work and may even have made things worse and that Mr Clarke's idea of letting more people out early may be ill-advised. It also suggests that there may be some truth to the claim that "prisons are harder to get into than universities" as anyone who failed to enter even a low grade university after 12 applications is surely quite hard done by.
One of the many problems of prison is that it seems very unclear to those in authority what they are actually for. During his "prison works" speech Mr Howard said that that the great thing about prison was that it kept "murderers, muggers and rapists" off our streets. With such a view one would conclude that prison was working while Mr Moat was in prison but failed the moment he was let out.
In which case either he should have been kept in there or something constructive should have been done with him while he was there.
The "prison works" philosophy turns prison simply into a storage room for all the bad elements of society at best. At worst however it has led to what have become known as "colleges of crime" or Talibanesque madrassas where petty criminals learn to become hardened criminals or turn to radical Islam.
Those on both the right and the left have given their own solutions as to why prison re-offending is such a serious problem. On the one hand there are those such as Johann Hari who point to the high levels of illiteracy among prisoners, while on the right those such as Peter Hitchens point out that illiteracy does not force people to commit crime and that soft prisons fail to act as a deterrent to criminals.
Mr Hari is quite right that prisoners need to learn to read and should be taught the skills that they will need re-integrating into society. However at the same time prison should not even be the slightest bit attractive to would-be criminals. Sky TV, table football and other such entertainments and pleasures should be ended.
Prisoners not only need to come out able to read and write, but they should also come out realising that if they force their fellow citizens to suffer through their actions, they also will suffer. Prison should not be a punishment, it should be a place where punishment takes place. That punishment does not mean the cat O' nine tails, it means hard work and the deprivation of privileges and pleasures.
Such an approach would act as a true deterrent. In the early to mid 20th century British prisons were transformed from austere Victorian houses of punishment into the more comfortable and some would say civilized institutions we have today.
The change came from noble motives. Those from the middle and educated classes who found themselves subjected to prison such as the Suffragettes and the conscientious objectors were horrified by the harshness of prison and it was such figures who led the way in working to make prisons places for civilized people to live in.
Unfortunately what they forgot was prison is not a place for civilized people but for those who for whatever reason have harmed their fellow citizens due to a lack of scruples. Prisons were reformed to house the kind of people who never should find their way to such institutions and so became too soft for real criminals who as Mr Hitchens pointed out in his book on the subject are generally "neither philosophers nor pacifists".