Is prison too harsh or too soft? Vicky Pryce’s book gives plenty of fuel to both arguments

Prisonomics by Vicky PryceVicky Pryce’s Prisonomics: Behind bars in Britain’s failing prisons is really two books interwoven. One is a rather dry academic text which uses a barrage of statistics to make a powerful case for female prison reform – especially because of the impact on their children of incarcerating mothers, and the frequent failures of the prison system to address the sorts of issues such as mental illness and abuse that cause so many prisoners to break the law in the first place (and then cause so many to reoffend afterwards). It make a good case for a liberal prison policy.

But then there is also the author’s personal prison diary. I suspect these sections will make many readers doubt that liberal policy impetus. At one point, for example Vicky Pryce describes a weekend in a Grade II-listed Elizabethan building, enjoying a free gym with two trainers to hand, and with many of the other women she knew off for the weekend in London instead. That is a description of a weekend at her open prison – and a description that will make many readers, I suspect, think that all her repeated references to the plus sides rather undermine what prison should be about in the first place. The statistics may make the prison system sound too oppressive; much of the personal account goes in the opposite direction.

Given how often it is the personal stories that trump the dry numbers in persuading people, I also suspect the overall effect of the book is very unlikely to do that much to aid her clearly passionate belief in prison reform. Especially as, despite the account of her own time in prison being short of horrors, Pryce makes clear in the book that she thinks she should not have been in prison and does not use the book as an opportunity to express remorse or repentance over her own role in the events that caused her to be sent to prison.

As a result, the two parts of the book neatly capture the debate at the heart of prison policy – how much is prison about punishment and how much is it about rehabilitation? The two are often in conflict, for the harsher the punishment, and the lesser the support, the lower the odds of successful rehabilitation.

One theme that does come through clearly, however, is how often the bureaucratic requirements of the prison system cause problems for successful rehabilitation – such as when prisoners are sent a large distance (and an expensive journey) away from their families, with visiting hours at inconvenient times, so cutting off prisoners from the sort of support that is so key to keeping families together and to keeping released prisoners out of a swift return visit.

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Buy Prisonomics: Behind bars in Britain’s failing prisons by Vicky Pryce here.

Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.

Prisonomics: Behind bars in Britain's failing prisons by Vicky Pryce
My rating (out of 5): 3.0
Two books in one: a statistical argument that prison is too harsh and a personal account that often suggests otherwise
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