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In a week when the Prison Governers' Association called for the scrapping of jail terms under 12 months, Barbara Panvel considers the alternatives - including farm work for those incarcerated.

The case of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter brought back to my mind the words of two local people: a taxi driver, reflecting on the killing of Mohammed Arshad and the local owner of a Post office and General Stores speaking about the two armed hold-ups he had faced.

Both said that even if the attackers were caught and sentenced, they would be back on the streets before too long and probably even more dangerous.

At Lancaster Prison I was told that over the centuries the treatment of prisoners had evolved over the centuries from great deprivation to five-star treatment today, with prisoners now being offered a menu every day and a wide range of recreational facilities.

MP Ann Widdecombe is disturbed by the fact that over half of those released offend again within two years, failing not only the individual but the public as well. She recognises that though prisons do ‘spasmodic good’ - some people emerge with NVQs, others clean from drug rehabilitation programmes and others merely forever deterred from crime by their experience of incarceration – far too often prisoners are locked up ‘in idleness’ and she believes that this virtually guarantees re-offending.

The only reported life-changing results on a significant scale have come from farm work with animals or growing vegetables – the nearest being HMP Frankley near Birmingham. The recognition of success? Funding was withdrawn and equipment from ‘prison farms’ was sold.

A spokeswoman for the Prison Service, when questioned about one such successful farm said “the Prison Service's job is to run prisons. We are meant to be looking after inmates, not rare breeds of horses."

Having long regretted this withdrawal of funding I was pleased to hear about Care Farming West Midlands from its Shropshire Development Officer Michael Whithouse.

There are projects in Worcestershire, Hereford and Ironbridge involving care farming. The Herefordshire Division of West Mercia Constabulary has reported a 15% reduction in all crime, 55% reduction in burglary of dwellings and 33% reduction in vehicle crime since their scheme began, though added that other factors might be involved.

Coppice Farm in St Weonards, Hereford is a commercially operated Care Farm run by Adam Evans. A small number of offenders began carrying out supervised tasks on the farm, ranging from basic maintenance of machinery to tending for sheep during a very busy lambing season. The turn-round noted in the outlook and attitude of most of the men involved has been amazing.

HMP Usk/Prescoed in Wales is another exception. Many inmates work on the prison's farm, which has a dairy herd, a sawmill, from which wood products are being developed by prisoners and staff from 160 acres of woodland. Others can acquire skills including painting & decorating, building, joinery, IT, catering, motor vehicle maintenance, industrial cleaning and horticulture.

Ann Widdecombe offers another approach, advocating a regime practised in several other countries: real work comes into prison supplied by real contractors for delivery to real customers. Real wages are paid and from them real deductions for keep are taken. The habit of an orderly working day and an orderly use of earnings is established.

Both approaches are a great improvement on current practice and, as Ann says:

“The savings alone from reducing the crime rate would make the effort worth it from a financial point of view - and the reduction in the number of victims would make it more than worth it from a human point of view. The redemption of the individual brings a benefit greater than just his own”.



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