Do we jail more people or do we try to tackle underlying problems?

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By Brian Pelan, VIEW editor

The prison, as the US political activist, academic and author Angela Davis once observed, “becomes a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent”.

I would argue that prison, reformed or unreformed, is not the solution to homelessness, mental illness, educational disadvantage or learning difficulties. The real solutions to social problems surely lie outside the criminal justice system.

And as the new Justice Minister Claire Sugden takes up her post, she, like her predecessors in the same position, will be confronted by the same question. Do we continue to lock more people up or do we, as a society, try to tackle the underlying problems?

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In our latest issue of VIEW, which looks at prisons and justice, I am delighted to have the director of the Quaker Service Janette McKnight, left, as the guest editor.

The Quakers, along with the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO), have quietly and efficiently carried out vital work in our prisons for many years. They provided services to the families of prisoners for decades throughout the bleakest years of the Troubles. However, both of them lost out on a contract earlier this year to a private firm.

The Northern Ireland Probation Board has had to reduce its funding to the voluntary sector from £1 million to £100,000 in the last two years due to its own budget being cut.

And yet all the experts and research maintain that early intervention is key to a reduction in the levels of crime and the numbers of people going to jail.

If we also step back and identify the main social problems we soon recognise that much more effective remedies are to be found outside of the prison system.  The education disadvantage suffered by those imprisoned – who have often experienced the school to prison pipeline – requires radical changes to our overall education system rather than the provision of more educational opportunities in prison. The high levels of mental health issues in our jails requires investment in community services and not a seemingly endless round of cuts

A number of organisations, profiled in this issue of VIEW, carry out sterling work in our prisons.

But in order to grow and flourish they need significant funding. Is there the political will to support and fund them?

We shall soon find out.

• To read the latest issue of VIEW go to;  http://issuu.com/brianpelanone/docs/issuu_37_view/1

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