The Guardian, May 2005
Maybe nothing really changes. Several hundred years ago when red-faced judges and pot-bellied politicians were happy to procure power by ordering men to be hanged by the neck and left dangling to rot by the wayside, there was a popular rhyme: "Little villains oft submit to fate, so great ones may enjoy the world in state."
Think of Andrew O'Connor. When Michael Howard tells you that prison works, when the Prime Minister celebrates his tough line on crime, when you hear once again that this country jails more of its men and women than Burma or China, think of Andrew O'Connor - petty thief, pain in the neck, prolific offender, habitual prisoner, dead.
There is nothing so unusual about his being dead. People who work with offenders will tell you that, as things stand, there really are only three ways that most repeat offenders finally stop breaking the law - they just grow out of it; they kill somebody and get locked up for life; or they die. Some of those who die commit suicide, some of them accidentally overdose, most of them just die from general neglect.
As offenders go, there never was anything very unusual about Andrew O'Connor. Any social worker or police officer or prison officer reading this story could stop now and, with their eyes shut, they could predict just about all of his background: his family were poor, he grew up on crap estates, he never knew his father, he was knocked about by his step father, he was a nightmare at school and a pest on the streets, he was put into care, he was sexually abused. By the time he was ten, he was being arrested. By the time he was 15, he was doing custody. By the time he was 30, he was dead. Nothing unusual. There are thousands of Andrew O'Connors shuffling through the dark tunnels of our criminal justice system.
Now, watch how the judges and the politicians play their hand. And look back, in particular, at what happened after the Prime Minister, in the autumn of 2001, decided to make good on his pledge to be tough on the causes of crime by personally commissioning the social exclusion unit in the Cabinet Office, to find out what he had to do to stop the endless reoffending of people like Andrew O'Connor.
The SEU set off on a mighty investigation, using five civil servants to work full time for the following nine months, trawling through statistics and research, visiting prisons, interviewing experts, talking to officials in government departments, all in search of an answer. And they found it. In July 2002, they published their report, "Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners" - 218 pages of analysis, packed with facts and figures, supported by more than four hundred footnotes. Its conclusions were clear.
Essentially, they boiled down to three big themes. First: "Prison sentences are not succeeding in turning the majority of offenders away from crime." Second: "A prison sentence can - and frequently does - make things worse." Finally: the real key to reducing offending was to attack its causes (just as the Prime Minister had been saying). Homelessness, unemployment, drug and alcohol problems, mental health problems, physical health problems, educational problems - these were the seeds from which crime grew, seeds which were fertilised by the impact of imprisonment.
In many ways, there was nothing new about these conclusions. Any front-line worker in the criminal justice system would have recognised them. The importance of the SEU report was that these conclusions were backed by irresistible evidence, supported by seven different government departments who had been consulted by the SEU, and delivered direct to the most powerful figure in government, who duly welcomed them as "a significant contribution to our understanding of what works in combatting crime." This was a chance finally for the criminal justice system to start to make a difference.
It could make a difference to the communities who suffered from the crimes of prolific offenders: the SEU found that released prisoners were streaming unchanged out of custody and committing something like a million offences a year and that these offenders alone were costing at least £11 billion each year (that did not count the value of what they were stealing or damaging: £11 billion was simply the cost to tax payers of pushing them through this ineffective process of punishment.)
And it could make a difference to the offenders themselves. By the time the SEU report was published, in July 2002, Andrew O'Connor, then aged 29, had been convicted in the courts of Devon, where he lived, on 24 different occasions. Never once had any one of those court hearings done anything which was conceivably likely to stop him offending - because none of them did anything to tackle the causes of his crime. They treated him as though he really were the Daily Mail's caricature of an offender, breaking the law because he was 'a bad person', simply in need of stiff punishment to deter him. Andrew O'Connor was not this caricature: he was a young man whose life had collapsed under him like rotten floorboards.
His father left before he was born and never bothered to come back for him. His stepfather thrashed him with a belt, so the boy used to run away and sleep in the woods for several days at a time. His mother reluctantly agreed to put him into care for a while - never knowing that her much-loved nine-year-old boy would be slippered, caned, bullied and casually used as a sex object by an older boy and one or two members of staff. Then he started going out with other kids, nicking stuff from shops, setting fire to an empty building, stealing cars, taking pills, screwing houses, smoking dope.
By the time he was 12, he was the walking, talking, non-stop-offending embodiment of what the SEU report was describing. Prisoners are 13 times as likely as anybody else to have been in care. They are also 13 times as likely to be jobless, ten times as likely to have played truant at school, six times as likely to be very young parents. Eighty per cent of them cannot write with the skills of an eleven-year-old. More than 60% of them have drug problems. More than 70% of them suffer at least two mental disorders. Andrew O'Connor had all this. The courts, however, just carried on hurting him, as though they had some moral right to pile torment on a ten-year-old, as though they really thought that by doing this, they were protecting the community from his offences.
He was convicted of stealing cars in Plymouth. So they endorsed his licence. That made no difference at all. He didn't have a licence: he was only 12 at the time. He carried on stealing cars. So the courts endorsed his non-existent licence again - when he was 13 and once again when he was 14 and yet again when he was 15. On the last two occasions, they also disqualified him from driving, never minding the fact that he was still too young to qualify to drive in the first place, never wondering why this small boy was earning a living by stealing expensive cars for adults in Plymouth and taking his pay in cannabis and amphetamine.
From the age of ten, he came up in court for burgling. The bench solemnly imposed a care order on him. But he was already in care. That was part of the problem. They fined him too, even though they knew very well that his only source of income to pay the fines was more burgling. When he was 14, they started locking him up - that year they sentenced him to three bouts of custody, amounting to ten out of the ensuing 13 months, even though it was plain that he was coming straight out of custody each time to carrying on with his offending. When he was 18, they solemnly gave him three years probation, never minding the fact that they had already given him two years probation - not once but twice in the previous ten months. He just went ahead and caried on offending.
After the courts failed, the prisons failed too. By the time the SEU report was published, Andrew O'Connor had been released from custody eleven times and he had never received any effective help for any of the problems which made him an offender. Over and over again, he would come out homeless and jobless, bingeing on drugs and alcohol, haunted by personality disorders from his abusive childhood, unregistered with a GP, still unskilled, still unable to read or write like an adult. Each time, he stumbled straight back into crime - thefts, burglaries, assaults. On one release, he was given £10,000 in compensation for the sex abuse he had suffered in care. He blew the lot in weeks, on drugs and generosity to strangers. Sometimes, it took him only a day to get back into trouble; never more than a few months.
Mr Blair's government already knew quite a lot about this and had started to talk more about rehabilitation. Andrew O'Connor had heard the talk and he had believed it. On his last big release before the SEU report, in March 2000, he had written to his legal adviser, Nicki Rensten of the Prisoners' Advice Service: "I've got a good personal officer. He's set up meetings for my release and is in touch with my probation officer. He's guaranteed me I won't just be dumped on the streets like last time. They're working to set up a package for me with the best support I can have.... Between him and another officer, they have phoned the council housing and DSS on my behalf. He says he'll get probation to pull some strings to get me in my own council flat on relase with help with clothing, furniture etc, and help to set myself up working.... I want to live in this lovely place in Devon called Teignmouth.... I think I'll give prison a rest in future. I think this is going to be a good year."
It never happened. Andrew O'Connor was pushed out of the gate of Long Lartin Prison one morning with no address to go to, no job to go to, no GP to look after him and only £46.75 of discharge grant to last him the several weeks it would take him to sign on. None of the help he had been promised materialised. The housing office in Teignmouth said they did not have to house him, because he was not vulnerable enough to qualify. Without an address, he had even less chance of finding a job. The DSS gave him no help with clothing or any of the other basics which he lacked after a four-year prison sentence; his discharge grant soon ran out and, when he eventually received his benefit, he found the minimal weekly payment had been cut even further to make him repay a crisis loan he had taken out six years earlier. His former GP refused to take him back even when he broke his foot. He ended up sleeping in a friend's car where he was arrested and sent back to jail - for failing to tell probation where he was living, even though they themselves had allowed him to be released without an address to go to.
And what the SEU report captured so vividly from its reservoir of research was that prison was not merely failing to stop the offending of people like Andrew O'Connor: it was actively stimulating it. Homelessness was a cause of crime - but 30% of prisoners lost their homes as a direct result of being jailed. Unemployment was a cause of crime - but two thirds of prisoners who were in work, lost their jobs as a result of being jailed. Debt was a cause of crime - but a third of all prisoners saw their debts get worse as a result of being jailed. Broken family links were a cause of crime - but 43% of prisoners lost these links as a result of being jailed. The failure of the system to deliver its objective was stunning. This failure - this routine, ritualised, systemic failure - was why the SEU report mattered so much. But look how the politicians played their hand.
The warning signs were there from the beginning. This was the first and only report from the SEU which had no action plan at the end of it: the government departments who were responsible for housing, employment, education, benefits etc had agreed to support it only if there was no timetable committing them to change. All they would accept were 'recommendations' without any specific policy commitment. The SEU went along with this in the hope that these departments would have to deliver a real commitment once the report was published if only to allow the government to produce its response, which was due six months later at the end of 2002. What happened was very different.
There was no government response after six months. There was to be no response for two long years, because the government departments whose co-operation was vital, were determined not give extra money or priority to a bunch of politically unpopular offenders, no matter how much crime was generated as a result. As one direct witness told us: "The SEU were shafted. These department officials don't really see the 'social dregs' at the bottom of the pool. They have no sense of the link between the decisions they make and the crime that will be committed as a result. There was two years of acrimonious meetings, with these departments sitting on their hands, digging in their heels, blaming each other. It was really disgraceful."
The Home Office set up a team to implement the report. It was considerably smaller and far less senior in its leadership than teams which had been set up for other comparable issues. The Treasury was interested in saving money by turning people away from prison, but it was not prepared to take any political risks, so Treasury officials backed the SEU's plans for more education and job advice for prisoners - they were politically easy to sell - but they would give nothing for the other causes of crime. Overwhelmingly, the Treasury's investment stayed with prisons, even though the SEU had found so much evidence of their failure - even though the Home Office team came up with their own cost-benefit analysis to show how, in the long term, investment would save public money.
Other government departments were even worse. The small Home Office team spent months trying to secure housing for released prisoners, waving the SEU evidence that a stable home cut re-offending by 20%. All they wanted was for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to tell local authorities to treat more prisoners as 'vulnerable' and, therefore, entitled to housing. The ODPM would not have it. They said prisoners' housing was a job for the prison service. The prison service said that was fine but they didn't have any housing. The ODPM said it was no good coming back to them, because the law would not allow them to treat prisoners as 'vulnerable'. One of those involved said this was "nonsense - they just didn't want to do anything". The ODPM got their way: even if it did mean more crime, there was no effective priority on housing for released prisoners.
And there was no help for the thousands of prisoners each year who rented homes and then lost them when they were jailed because they could not get housing benefit to pay the rent. A relatively new rule meant that those who did manage to get housing benefit lost it immediately if it looked as though they were going to spend more than 13 weeks behind bars. Before the report was published, the SEU had persuaded the Department for Work and Pensions to extend this to 26 weeks, but then Andrew Smith had become Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and ruled that single men were not a priority for his department and stopped the whole move. Now, the Home Office team tried to tackle some local authorities who were refusing to pay prisoners any housing benefit at all on the grounds that if they were jailed, it was their own fault, so in the eyes of the law they were intentionally homeless and barred from benefit. The ODPM variously refused to admit that the problem existed and/or declined to solve it.
One after another, the recommendations of the SEU report were killed off: the prison service refused to increase the discharge grant; the Department for Work and Pensions refused to pay prisoners' benefits quicker. At one point the DWP agreed to grant released prisoners immediate crisis loans to stop them running out of money while they waited for benefit, but then they reneged on the deal. There was nothing to make sure that released prisoners had GPs to go to. Nothing at all to help prisoners with alcohol problems, just a strategy document without any resources (a decision which was disguised with classic Whitehall elegance as "building on good practice within existing resources").
The Home Office team tried to re-unite imprisoned mothers with their children who had been taken into care. Nothing. They tried to help the 125,000 children a year who lose a parent to prison - children who subsequently prove to be three times more likely than their peers to have mental health problems. Nobody was interested. Two Whitehall officials sat through a meeting where they refused to make prisoners' children a higher priority for the Sure Start programme and walked away declaring quite audibly: "Well, that was a load of old bollocks, wasn't it?"
The Prison Service itself was asked repeatedly to require all governors to assess the needs of all new prisoners so that their problems were at least known. "That was thrown out with real scorn," according to one witness. "This was a key thing - to know what problems they were dealing with, so they had a chance to solve them - and they just refused point blank."
The government did not reject everything. They agreed to set up Jobcentre Plus advisors in prisons and to fund new programmes to link drug treatment inside prison to agencies on the outside. They transferred prisoners' healthcare to the Department of Health with Inreach teams to work with the most mentally disordered on prison wings. But these moves were politically unavoidable. The fact remained that when the government had the copper-bottomed evidence they needed to attack re-offending, they had chosen to be dishonest about crime and dishonest about the causes of crime.
The civil servant who had headed the Home Office team, Julian Corner, subsequently resigned and wrote a little-noticed article in Safer Society, the magazine of the prison rehabilitation group Nacro. Corner recalled the strength of the evidence in the SEU's report, which he had helped to write: "The premise was that seven government departments would go on to forge a united front against reoffending, and prison would only be used as a last resort. What actually happened was that they cherry-picked the most politically acceptable and convenient actions, and rubbished the rest - namely, the social inclusion measures."
But all this left the government with a problem: they still had to publish a response to the SEU's report. How could they justify rejecting so much evidence of what really stopped reoffending? On the face of it, the Prime Minister who personally had commissioned and welcomed the report should himself hold a press conference to respond to it. Or perhaps one or two of the relevant ministers would take on the job. But they did nothing like that. The response, when it came, was brilliant.
On Monday July 19 last year, the Prime Minister went to a community centre in north London and made a speech about crime in which he blamed our problems with law and order on what he called the 1960s liberal consensus. It is fair to say that this was an idea which was unsupported by any criminological research anywhere on the planet.
That speech was leaked in advance to half-a-dozen newspapers, including The Guardian, all of whom ran it prominently on that Monday morning. During the day, the Home Office put out details of future plans for attacking crime - on-the-spot fines for children, electronic tagging, satellite tracking. This ensured that the speech enjoyed another round of reports on the Tuesday morning. The Daily Mail's headline said: "Blair the crimefighter (and about time too)." Then the columnists and the leaderwriters joined in. The alleged link between the historic rise in crime and 1960s liberalism was still being reported and discussed in the Sunday papers at the end of the week.
And on that Monday afternoon, while all the crime specialists and all the leader writers and the columnists were chasing the decoy of a speech which was unsupported by a single grain of criminological evidence, in the midst of that, without any press conference or press briefing or statement in the House, the government quietly placed their response to the SEU report on the Home Office website. And while the Prime Minister's speech received tens of thousands of words of coverage, spread over a whole week, their response to the SEU's vital research work received.... not one single word.
In the same Safer Society article, Julian Corner reviewed the response which was presented as 'a national action plan' with 60 action points: "There's a commitment to ‘mapping and analysing existing housing and service provision'. Has it actually taken all that time to build the resolve to map provision? How about ‘developing a strategy for a more coherent information and advice service'? Isn't this the work needed to produce the action point? Then there's ‘developing a timetable to introduce a measure' - a new definition of action, surely. And ‘work will examine the possibility of working with a particular region to establish best practice'. Beyond parody. These are, in reality, 60 inaction points."
The 60 points did not even mention the particular problems of prisoners on remand, or on short sentences, or of women prisoners or young prisoners or those from ethnic minorities. Corner continued: "We had, after the SEU report, the near ideal circumstances for putting into place the social care framework that might, conceivably, have made imprisonment compatible with the reducing reoffending agenda. But ministers and officials lacked the resolve to follow through on the report's recommendations." And nobody noticed. The government had hacked the SEU's work to bits and now they had quietly buried its remains.
By now, of course, Andrew O'Connor was dead. While the government had been sitting on the evidence of the failure of prisons, the numbers being jailed had carried on climbing and Andrew O'Connor had been behind bars again. During the two years when government departments were busy blocking most of the SEU's findings, he had managed three months at liberty, ended up with a crack habit and a bed in the Salvation Army hostel in Devonport, Plymouth. One night, he walked into a snooker club and asked for a drink. They told him he would have to pay £10 for membership. He told them he would pay £5 this week and £5 next. The bar staff told him to get lost. He told them to give him a drink or he would take everybody in the bar hostage. He was unarmed, but the club called the police and he ended up doing 16 months for affray. When he came out of that sentence, he lasted one day before being sent back for breaching his licence: they said he had stumbled drunk into a probation hostel; he said he was having an epileptic fit.
He spent another four months in prison, in Exeter. He did a course in enhanced thinking. When they asked him for his objectives, he wrote "No objectives - you won't get anywhere." He told them: "I never had a proper childhood so am unsure a lot of the time how I should respond or even if what I am thinking or feeling is appropriate for the situation." He passed the course.
He filled in a form at the prison: "Paramount, I need structured care plan to make sure of good recovery. I would like to achieve outside counselling for the root causes of my problems, so the right support and right environment, ie around my family, with intense counselling, this would be the best plan for me." He had a big reconcilation with his mother, who said he could come home to live with her. He wrote to a friend: "My mum is taking three months off work to love and support me, take me to meetings and appointments, help me fill out forms, take me places and re-integrate me into society generally."
As usual, it never happened. There was a meeting in the prison to discuss his release. His probation officer failed to turn up. The prison workers agreed that he should go to his mother's with help from a local agency to deal with his drug habit. But the probation officer then over-ruled this and said he must go to a hostel miles away from her, in Cornwall. The hostel housed sex offenders and, recalling his past abuse, Andrew O'Connor refused to go there and, in protest, then refused to work with the local drug agency. His mother spent the three weeks before his release phoning the police and probation and the prison, warning them that Andrew would not go to the hostel and must come to her. Most of her calls went unreturned.
On Thursday October 23 2003, he walked out of prison. On Wednesday October 29 at 7.30 in the morning, at the Peppermint Park caravan site in Dawlish, south Devon, he was found dead. The pathologist said he had had an epileptic fit in the night. If he had been at home, if he had had a GP, if he had had a life, maybe it would have been different. As it was, he was living a half life. He was fully clothed. His mother said he must have slept that way so he could run away if the police came to get him. She wrote afterwards: "Andrew was a victim before he was born and continued to be a victim. He wanted to come home. In the last twenty years, he never had his own bed. It breaks my heart and fills me with so much pain to know one of my children that I loved, suffered so much for the biggest part of his life, because of my mistakes, to let him go into care, and the mistakes of a system that was supposed to care for him. Why was it so hard to get any real help? Is it easier to just lock someone up to keep them off the streets?"
The SEU's work was not entirely wasted. Its research has become a reference point. There is now a Reducing Reoffending Committee in Whitehall where senior officials carry forward the national action plan which eventually emerged. There are signs of new life - some new money for housing advice, a pilot project in the South West to help released prisoners find homes, "invest to save" money for working on family links. And yet the central thrust remains diverted, away from an effective attack on the causes of crime, towards the acquisition of political power through the infliction of hardship.
The Guardian recently re-published a letter from a former nurse who had started to work with young offenders in Manchester: "It is a complete non-sequitur that because a boy stole your watch, he should be supported on your rates in jail, perhaps for life... The punishment of jail is not a deterrent.. 'Punishment' is perhaps not a word in God's vocabulary at all and, if so, ought not to be in ours." The letter was written in 1890, by Florence Nightingale. Maybe nothing really changes.
Additional research by Roxanne Escobales