A broken prison system – but Scotland pushes for reform

Published by The i paper (29th January, 2018)

Two years ago, in those far off days before the Brexit debacle, David Cameron declared prison reform ‘a great progressive cause’ and set out his vision for a ‘modern, more effective, truly 21st century system’ offering hope for those who made mistakes. Now we glimpse reality behind such grand rhetoric and it turns out we have barely moved beyond a place familiar to Charles Dickens. Life behind bars is a world of squalor and suicides, of desperation and drugs, of mentally-ill prisoners in dank cells, of fearful guards working amid violence.

David Gauke, our sixth justice secretary in eight years, has been made to intervene over Nottingham prison after eight inmates killed themselves in two years, the chief inspector repeating charges that the prison was ‘fundamentally unsafe’. A prison officer claimed there were two suicide attempts each week amid an epidemic of self-harm. Then came a damning report into Liverpool prison exposing inhumane conditions with damp, dirty and blocked toilets, broken windows, freezing cells, cockroaches and rats in rubbish piles. Many inmates were locked in tiny cells for much of the day, the prison swamped with drugs, and a convicted killer managed to escape.

Inspection reports have twice pointed out Liverpool’s problems in the past five years. But as the prison population swelled and budgets were slashed, offenders were stuffed into cells previously closed as unfit for use. So when Rory Stewart, another new justice minister, faced MPs last week, he pledged ‘to get back to basics’ rather than promise a brave new world like his former boss. ‘People want to talk about grand issues of sentencing policy,’ he said, before adding that ‘making prisoners feel they are in a safe environment without broken windows is really important’.

True enough. If men and women are incarcerated by the state, they should be kept in better conditions than those of battery hens. Yet the minister is missing the point. Inmates were crammed into reopened cells because prisons are overflowing. And this is due to decisions taken by politicians to satisfy populist pressures that have led numbers to double in two decades with endless new laws, serious sentence inflation and fewer community punishments. Chuck in spending cuts, reduced staffing, a stumbling probation shake-up, rampant drug use, the dawn of drones, miniature mobile phones – and the result is prison chaos.

So yes, Mr Stewart, we should talk about sentencing and judicial policies. Why does England and Wales lock up more people than any other country in Western Europe? Why is knife crime soaring – up 21 per cent in 12 months – despite stiffer sentencing? Why is drug use booming behind bars when Westminster thinks they can be thwarted in wider society? Why does someone who goes to prison come out more likely to commit crime? And isn’t it a terrible waste of taxpayers’ money when you spend £35,000 a year to lock people up and then almost half reoffend within 12 months?

It is not just broken windows but a broken system. And since the new minister of state at justice is one of our smartest politicians, Stewart must know something has gone seriously awry. Privately, few politicians still subscribe to the silly stance that prison works. Most see a system crushing staff morale while doing almost nothing to help those individuals with broken family backgrounds, limited education, addiction issues, learning disabilities or mental health problems that make up most inmates.

As a succession of ministers serve short terms in the justice department, there is constant talk of reform but no real change. Yet there is an alternative. Not just in the Netherlands, which used to match our incarceration rates then saw it made more sense to solve problems rather than just stuff offenders in jail. Nor even in the United States, where far-sighted Republicans became unlikely crusaders for rehabilitation. Simply look over the border in Scotland, where a left-liberal alliance is stumbling its way towards a more progressive approach.

This began eight years ago when the Scottish National Party government passed a presumption against prison for sentences under three months after two decades of rising jail populations. Such short terms are worse than useless, disrupting family and work ties with no chance of rehabilitation. So Scottish judges must justify in court why they wish to use a sentence under 12 weeks, especially if a suitable community scheme is available. There has been an eight per cent fall in prison numbers as crime and reconviction rates fell.

Now they plan to go much further by extending this move to 12 months. ‘We must be even bolder in our efforts to keep people out of prison and reduce reoffending further,’ said the first minister Nicola Sturgeon. Spot on. The move was backed by a big majority of respondents in consultation – although opposed by Ruth Davidson’s Tories with traditional scaremongering and absurd talk of ‘soft-touch Scotland.’ As her fellow conservatives in America came to realise, it is far tougher to force people to tackle personal demons than leave them sitting around stoned in cells all day.

This means prison chiefs can concentrate resources on rehabilitation, as reoffending rates actually rise among those serving less than 12 months. Scotland has also stemmed sentence inflation. This has led to divergence in punishments across the border: fraudsters serve twice as long on average in England and Wales, while arsonists and vandals get more than three times as long inside. Drug sentences are some six months shorter. ‘Are our drug offences so much more serious than those in Scotland,’ asked Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice. ‘I doubt it.’

Scotland is showing something profound on criminal justice: politicians displaying genuine leadership and standing firm against synthetic outrage to improve society. Sadly, it is so rare it seems almost hallucinatory.

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