9 Jul 2024

‘PM is in a tricky position to take on prison sector’ says youth justice specialist

News Correspondent

Andi Brierley is a youth justice specialist at Leeds Trinity University and a former inmate himself.

Ayshah Tull: We saw inside the Scotland prison, we’ve got a raft of reports saying that these conditions are absolutely atrocious. Are you surprised or shocked by anything that you’ve heard recently?

Andi Brierley: Not really, because this has been something that’s been building over a period of time. I think we’re sending people to prison for longer and sending more people to prison, and at the same time, we’ve had austerity measures which have taken resources away from the prison system itself. So I think this has been something that’s been long standing, and definitely the prime minister is in a bit of a tricky situation to take on the prison sector as a newly appointed prime minister.

Ayshah Tull: A tricky situation, he’s appointed a prisons minister – James Timpson. He has employed lots of ex-offenders. Do you think that’s a good appointment? Are you happy with that appointment?

Andi Brierley: I think it’s a really good appointment. I think that what we need to start doing, in my view, and I’ve been in and around prisons since 1999, whether that’s been in prisons, working in prisons or teaching prison officers who are working with people, particularly children, that end up in our prison system. And I think too often what we’re doing is we’re not listening to the evidence and we’re not listening to people that are on the prison reform side of things. Because there’s a strong evidence base around what we should do about prisons – and start to think about how we use prisons more effectively – get people who go to prison and actually build the skills and knowledge that they need to come out of prison and transition back into communities, so that they can be productive members of society. Because at the moment, I don’t think that’s how we use prison.

Ayshah Tull: We heard in Kathryn’s report there about early release and emergency early release. It sounds like you think that that’s a good idea.

Andi Brierley: That’s a tricky question, because everybody who’s in prison, they’re often there for different reasons and present different risks. As a youth justice officer, my job was to assess risk and to manage risk. So people present different levels of risk. I don’t know whether it’s a good or a bad idea wholesale, but I don’t think the length of time in prison, from my perspective, is the biggest indicator of whether somebody is going to change their behaviour. I think that if you think of someone like me, for example, who was dysfunctional, I learnt to get rid of my bad habits by learning good habits and I’ve had a successful career since. So I would suggest that if people want to see people follow in my footsteps, I would suggest we think about how we develop the skills and knowledge of people while they’re in prison and more importantly, when they transition out of prison back into the communities. Because we pay for prison, so we should be demanding more effective prison sentences, in my view.

Ayshah Tull: But what about the victims’ perspective? From their perspective, they want to see fair justice and someone being let out early, as they see it, won’t be seen as fair in their eyes.

Andi Brierley: Yes. And I think that’s one of my biggest learnings when I went into practice, because I went in being an ex-prisoner and thought I could help all these youth that were getting involved in crime. But then when I took a different vantage point and was working, I had to incorporate the victims into pre-sentence reports. But I don’t think we should hide away from the fact that – actually – victims benefit, because if we can reduce re-offending, we reduce potential victims in the future. And that has to come from breaking those bad habits by providing better, more functional habits.