Human warehouses

When the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke announced his "rehabilitation revolution" in July 2010, he vowed that the coalition government, unlike its Labour and Conservative predecessors, would stop "simply banging up more and more people for longer". But 15 months on, the prison population has reached an all-time high of 87,501 (see graph), just 1,032 short of the usable operational capacity of 88,533.

So, what happened? In short, the riots. Instructed by the government to be "draconian", the courts remanded 65 per cent of those awaiting trial for riot-related offences in custody, compared with the normal figure of 10 per cent. Even worse for Clarke, sentences for those involved in the riots were tougher, too. Those found guilty of violent disorder were jailed for an average of 10.4 months, compared with an average of 5.3 months last year. For burglary, the average for those involved in the riots was 14.1 months, compared with 8.8 months last year.

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But it's not just this summer's disturbances that have shifted the odds against Clarke's reforms. His careless comments about rape (in a moment reminiscent of the good Aids/bad Aids scene in Brass Eye, Clarke attempted to distinguish between "serious" and less serious rape) forced Clarke to abandon plans to offer 50 per cent sentence discounts for early guilty pleas. Officially, the coalition still plans to cut more than 2,500 prison places but in the meantime, in the words of the Prison Reform Trust, parts of the system are "human warehouses, doing little more than banging people up in overcrowded conditions, with regimes that are hard pressed to offer any employment or education". Clarke's dream of a more liberal penal system is becoming ever more distant.

By George Eaton

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in The next great depression

2011-10-10