Posted by: aboutalbion | June 7, 2012

Prison farms might be worth further consideration

I was interested to read recently of about Bastoy Island in Norway.  Although it could be a holiday camp island, the island is actually an open prison that is ‘home’ to about 115 inmates.  Moore than that, the island is a prison farm and the inmates ‘work the land’.  After each day’s work, the inmates remain on the island with about five unarmed guards.  In practice, it seems that the opportunity to spend time at Bastoy is given to those with convictions for the most serious offences who are coming to the end of their sentences.

What caught my eye was the statistic that the reoffending rate amongst those who have been at Bastoy is 16%, which is the lowest in Europe.  The average reoffending rate across the whole of Europe is reported as at least two-thirds.  Although there are lesser rates in the Nordic countries, and although Norway locks up one of the lowest percentages of its small population, and although the Bastoy figures represent a small sample which should be treated with caution, I think that this experiment cannot be completely disregarded.

Although not having a completely free choice, prisoners who choose to ‘work the land’ at Bastoy are associated with at least two beneficial outcomes.  First, for most of the prisoners, there is evidence of the Bastoy experience being therapeutic.  Second, for Norway’s authorities, it delivers the desirable policy outcome of reducing reoffending.  In the on-going debate about crime and punishment in all nation states, any evidence that it may be possible to re-habilitate prisoners deserves to be considered.

Since the reoffending rate among UK prison inmates appears to be around 50%, I wondered if the UK had any prison farms.  The internet turned up a 2010 Freedom of Information request (posted on the internet with the reply) asking the authorities in the UK for factual information about the number of prison farms and the number of prisoners for whom farm work was an option.  The reply stated that there were five prison farms (over 60 acres) in England and Wales, and that the number of prisoner places at these farms was 92.  The reply volunteered the extra background information that the Prison Service had reduced its commitment to prison farms in the years between 2002 and 2005 from twenty three farms to the current five.  There was no information mentioned about reoffending rates.

Through the internet, I also learnt that prison farms are part of the care farms movement, which is based on the idea of associating people with special needs with commercial farms.  It turns out that research in this area is being done (amongst others) by a team in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex.

In a post earlier this week, I referred by implication to the historic prevailing view in Europe that one kind of salvation takes the form of not having ‘to work the land’ all day every day.  To my mind, it may be time to re-examine whether or not there are spiritual benefits to farm work.



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