Our prisons shame the country

Published by The i paper (13th February, 2017)

Prison reform struggled to win much attention in those sorely-missed days when news was dull and politics felt predictable. Who cares, after all, about scumbag criminals once they have been caught and stuffed behind bars? So no hope of anyone noticing events in our jails these tumultuous days. Instead headlines are dominated by populist fallout with a maverick president of the United States engaging in Twitter tantrums and Britain struggling to detach itself from Brussels.

Yet people should care. There is a crisis in our jails: deaths more than doubling in a decade, drug abuse rampant and violence soaring from self-harm to assaults on staff. Recent riots underscore the scale of problems. And remember almost all those inmates will be back on our streets, most after just a few months in jail. This is why the prison crisis matters. It is in all our interests that core issues of addiction, family breakdown, illiteracy and mental illness are tackled before they cause damaged individuals to break more bones and rob more homes.

Today our latest justice minister makes a major speech on prisons. Like her three Tory predecessors, Liz Truss has correct instincts about curbing recidivism through rehabilitation. We have, thankfully, come a long way since Michael Howard claimed prison worked and New Labour pathetically created a fresh criminal offence for each day in office. Their legacy is more people locked up in England and Wales per head of population than anywhere else in Western Europe. Yet so little is done to tackle criminality while they are in costly enforced state care that almost half reoffend within a year of release.

Truss has already reversed the short-sighted decline in prison staff numbers that corroded the service’s ability to cope and is pursuing some sensible innovations such as giving governors more autonomy to innovate. She will point out how sex offenders are clogging up the justice system, fuelled by better reporting and recent focus on historic deeds. Nearly one quarter of court time is spent on sex cases, resulting in a 140 per cent rise in such offenders jailed since 2000. They comprise one in eight inmates – loathed by other crooks but liked by staff since tending to be older, drug-free and more docile.

And yes, Truss will insist we need to see more early intervention on mental health problems, smarter community provision to tackle demons of addiction that lead so often to jail and renewed focus on rehabilitation to cut those recidivism rates that stay stubbornly high. This all makes perfect sense – although to make significant inroads requires serious money. Yet we have heard it often before. The reality is there are only two ways to cut prison populations: reduce the numbers entering or increase numbers exiting. And this takes political leadership.

There is plenty of evidence to challenge tired conventional wisdoms on criminal justice. Countries such as Holland and Finland, for instance, found big reductions in incarceration rates made little difference to levels of crime while freeing up cash to tackle underlying social problems. Indeed, solutions are more far likely to be found in housing, health services and schools than in jails. Yet if politicians acted tough instead of talking tough, there is opportunity for reform with Labour under Jeremy Corybn and only about 15 antediluvian ‘lock-em-up’ Tories left on the backbenches.

Drug reform would be one obvious step forward, replacing a free market controlled by criminals with state regulation to control sale and supply. This would be safer for everyone, whether users or not. But sadly Westminister’s instinctive response to any problem is to reach for the statute book and impose a new law. Witness current plans to introduce life imprisonment for drivers causing death while using a mobile phone and to double maximum sentences for stalking. Tougher sentencing, however, rarely solves societal problems.

Take knife crime. Prison sentences for possession have doubled in length over a decade to more than six months following imposition of inflexible new laws following media pressure. Yet the most recent quarterly crime figures show an 11 per cent increase in knife offences. And this is not just better reporting, as has been claimed, since there has been an even bigger rise in admissions to hospitals for knife wounds. Clearly the threat of prison does not deter scared or silly people from carrying these weapons, just as prohibition of drugs fuels gangsterism.

But it is not just knife crime suffering sentence inflation: average jail terms last four months longer than ten years ago. And this is worsened by the current crisis, with more than one million extra days of imprisonment imposed on inmates breaking rules since 2010. Even an unusually-sensible suggestion by Chris Grayling during his time in justice – supervision for those freed after short sentences – has backfired badly. Many of these people have chaotic lives, so this has merely led to hundreds more recalls to prison after offenders fell foul of probation demands.

The prison crisis is symptomatic of wider political failure on many fronts. We need to move away from punishment and retribution except for the most extreme cases. Campaigners such as Penelope Gibbs from Transform Justice ask whether harsh penalties are always the best solution even for sex offenders. Most politicians accept the need for a new narrative, yet remain fearful of media and public reaction should they propose the kind of radical solutions seen in other nations. So we are left with crammed, crumbling, degrading, drug-addled and violent prisons as a damning indictment of state failure. This leaves us all victims of a crisis behind bars.

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