Second chances for ex-offenders through education

Opinion on 9th September 2011

Reflections of the Tenth Anniversary of Lord Longford's death

by Peter Stanford, Director of the Longford Trust

There’s something thought-provoking about the tenth anniversary of Lord Longford’s death coinciding with the revelation that our prisons now contain record numbers (86,000 plus) of inmates.  The Ministry of Justice would have us believe that this is all down to a surge of remands and sentences for offences connected to the recent riots, but Frank Longford, if he were here, would be on his feet in his beloved House of Lords pointing to something deeper – an ever-stronger belief in Britain that a prison sentence is the only way to tackle criminality.  

Don’t be mislead by the ‘dotty peer’ and ‘Lord Porn’ tags that pigeonholed Frank during his lifetime as a naïve do-gooding eccentric.  His was a first-rate brain and he well understood the political world that was the stage for his more orthodox career – he served as Deputy Foreign Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty and Minister for Civil Aviation under Clement Attlee and was Leader of the Lords, Lord Privy Seal and Secretary of State for the Colonies in Harold Wilson’s first two administrations.  

And in terms of prisons and prisoners, he spent 71 of his 95 years visiting those behind bars.  Some of us of a certain age may only remember his long, lonely campaign to have fellow Catholic Myra Hindley paroled (a picture reinforced by the multi-award winning 2006 film, Longford, starring Jim Broadbent and written by Peter ‘The Queen’ Morgan), but from 1930 onwards Frank visited hundreds if not thousands of prisoners, usually three or four a week, and he carried on doing so right up to the end, when almost blind.  99.9 per cent were not infamous, but many benefited from his concern.

For his part, Frank learnt on those visits the reasons why people end up in prison.  He believed in punishment – in 1961 he wrote a book called The Idea of Punishment making that abundantly plain – but he was equally clear that punishment should not be the only purpose of imprisonment. It needs also to be about reform, rehabilitation and – a word that most shy away from in our secular times but which he used frequently – redemption.  If we understand why people offend, then that rehabilitation can be targeted and effective.

The benefit of such a dual approach (punishment and rehabilitation) is that it delivers what society really wants – released in-mates who do not offend against the rest of us again.  Instead what the present overcrowded, punishment-obsessed prison system turns out is 80 per cent of under-21 years who reoffend within two years of release and nigh on 70 per cent of over 21s. It is a pitiful result that costs us all a fortune.  We spend around £40,000 a year on each prison place.

Frank largely left to others the still unanswered challenge of developing non-custodial sentences to convince the sceptics.  And he was to content to lend his support to the work of organisations such as the Prison Reform Trust, which research the causes of crime (though he did produce a learned report on this himself in 1955 for the Nuffield Foundation).  

His own greatest contribution to the debate on prisons – and I would argue his most enduring one – was to challenge society to change its punitive attitude towards released offenders, to accept ex-prisoners back into society, and ultimately to forgive them.  That, he pointed out, is what Christianity teaches us we should do. (It is also at the heart of most other religions.)  Yet we remain stubbornly antagonistic to such a demand.

Take the young men and women, ex-prisoners all, helped by the Longford Trust, set up by his friends and family after Frank’s death to continue in a small way his work.  The trust gives them financial and mentoring support to go to university as way of continuing their rehabilitation.  In the seven years since the Longford Scholarships scheme was set up, we have seen increasing numbers of universities (mostly the older-established, more prestigious ones) refusing a place to ex-prisoners on the grounds that they have a criminal conviction.  

They never say it so directly, of course.  They blame it on health and safety concerns, risk assessments, referrals to forensic psychiatrists.  But the message is the same.  They offer no prospect of rehabilitation, no second chance, no acknowledgement that a completed prison sentence has paid back a debt to society, in short no forgiveness.  

It is tempting to rail against the prejudices of higher education institutions, but that is to miss the bigger point.  The universities are simply reflecting the prejudices of society at large.  And that is the argument Frank would have made, however unpopular.  So that is the part of his legacy that the Longford Trust will continue to highlight.  

We have plenty of individual success stories to back up our argument.  80 per cent of the youngsters we help gone on to get their degrees, find jobs and not reoffend.  Somewhere, up where he is receiving his well-deserved eternal reward, Frank will, I hope, be applauding.  But he will also be urging the trust on to use these success stories to keep hammering home the point that simply to punish offenders gets you nowhere.  It is how you support them during and after that punishment that is the mark of an enlightened, thoughtful and Christian society.

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