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We can’t afford to backtrack on prison reform

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Mass incarceration has grabbed the headlines recently, after episodes of unrest in prisons in Brazil and the Philippines. But when it comes to problems related to long-term confinement, no country embodies criminal justice failures more than the United States.

According to the UK-based International Centre for Prison Studies, America accounts for about four per cent of the world’s total population, yet the country is responsible for more than 20 per cent of the global prison population.

And, while crime rates in the US are hovering near historic lows, according to data from New York University’s Brennan Centre for Justice, it is more than frustrating to see the current political conversation return to “tough on crime” rhetoric and regressive policy proposals. It’s unfortunate that ineffective and costly calls to lock people up and throw away the key have come to symbolise political strength in the public eye.

In fact, the case for a different approach could not be more compelling. There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that aggressive imprisonment policies and harsher sentences do not reduce crime rates or improve public safety. Prisons may be an effective way to protect society from those who are found guilty of a crime, but to make that protection last, the criminal justice system must also help people rebuild their lives and find their way back into the community.

The US has a re-offense rate of 57 per cent within a year, while the UK’s is nearly 50 per cent, so something is clearly not working. Empowerment, education and employment—coupled with treatment options for those who are struggling with drugs and alcohol—offer the best hope of ensuring that people become productive members of society again. The time for that change is now.

It’s heartening to see that others are calling for reform, too. A poll by Youth First found that 78 per cent of Americans support change in the youth justice system that focuses on prevention and rehabilitation. And I was pleased to see Oklahoma Gov Mary Fallin, a conservative, recently urging reforms to lower the state’s prison population by reducing incarceration rates and improving rehabilitation.

In Texas, a traditionally conservative state with one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, sentencing has been reformed, which has decreased the number of people in prisons and state jails to the lowest rate since 1997. Meanwhile, the crime rate has dropped by 38 per cent during the same period, according to latest statistics.

Of course, mass incarceration is not limited to the US, and neither is progress. In countries across the world, there are valuable lessons to be learned about prison reform. We can do much better than to continuously marginalise people, obstructing their return to a meaningful and productive life. By giving them a second chance, we offer hope.

No country has demonstrated these values more than Colombia in recent months. The formidable efforts to establish peace after decades of bloody and devastating conflict—fueled and exacerbated by the failed war on drugs—have required moral courage across the political spectrum. Establishing common ground on both sides has required forgiveness, reconciliation and cooperation in order to stabilize the country.

I learned first-hand about some of the efforts to reintegrate the tens of thousands of male and female ex-combatants who put down their weapons following the peace agreement that ended more than five decades of conflict between Colombia’s government and FARC rebels.

Many ex-combatants became soldiers when they were children, but through education programmes, skills training and job placement, they will be given a realistic chance to integrate into Colombia’s community, which means a safer and more stable country. This is a fantastic lesson for those interested in implementing effective reform to end mass incarceration.

Of course, there are many pieces to the puzzle that extend far beyond governments. For instance, businesses must work collectively to reduce the barriers to employment that often disqualify ex-offenders from the start. Virgin has worked with ex-offenders for some time, but we could do more. We all could do more.

From public-private partnerships to training and skills-building within prisons, we must work together to ensure that people walk out of prison gates into jobs and a brighter future. While the problems of countries vary, the message is the same.

As the late Nelson Mandela said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” Prisons and the people in them should be seen as much a part of our society as schools and hospitals. It’s time we embrace them as hubs of growth and opportunity.

We all stand to gain.


(Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter at To learn more about the Virgin Group: (Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to Please include your name, country, email address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.)


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