Levels of violence have risen within the English prison system over the past year. The most serious incident occurred last week in HMP Birmingham where inmates took control of four wings. This follows growing unrest over the fall in facilities to prisoners, including lack of hot water and an increasing number of hours spent locked up due to staff shortages. There are some suggestions in the media that an influx of psychoactive drugs to the prison system has led to prisoners behaving more aggressively than ever before. But there seems to be little evidence of that being the cause of this unrest.
It is true that it is easier today for prisoners to access particular types of drugs, especially legal highs, and become addicted but that says more about the state of the prisons than about individuals kept there. A report published in May carried out by HM Inspectorate of Prisons into HMP Bedford found that almost twice the number of prisoners said it was “easy” to get hold of drugs, compared to a previous inspection in February 2014. Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons, wrote in the report: “The stark reality is that prisoners told us it was easier to get illegal drugs in the prison than it was to get clothes or sheets.
The truth is that the prison system is not working. The real problem remains the large number of people we put to prison every year, many for non-violent offences, including women. Compared to other European countries we have a much bigger population of prisoners per capita, and among western developed nations we are only second to the US. Nordic countries, Germany or the Netherlands have half the number of prisoners per capita and European judges are trained and educated to think of non-incarceration punishments.
We have more people in prison per capita than even China or Nigeria. Prison population numbers have doubled in the last 20 years as sentences have lengthened and the types of of “anti-social” acts classified as offences increased. And yet during that period better crime prevention and a wealthier, ageing nation led to a sharp reduction in crimes overall. But the politicians and judges seemed unable to resist the pressure of tabloid journalism to increase prison numbers.
There are now more men in prison than in the British Army. What we also know is that prison is not a deterrent for crime. The re-offending rate has remained stubbornly high costing the economy between £9 billion and £13 billion a year. Alternatives such as community service or proper treatment of alcohol and drug addiction are better options. Sending vulnerable people with trivial offences to prison or sending abused women to prison and separating them from their children is costing society dear. Children are taken into care which is often even more expensive than the cost of their mothers being in prison. What is more, children who have been in care at some point in their lives are four times as likely to commit an anti-social act including crimes that end up with a custodial sentence. When people emerge from prison they are unlikely to find proper jobs and easily start to re-offend to get a little money to feed themselves, pay rent or buy drugs.
This is all a great drain on the public purse. The system has become too expensive to fund or allow it to focus on “rehabilitating” offenders so they can play a proper role in society again. All the academic and practical evidence suggest that the best way to reduce crime is through education and employment. The funding cutbacks to the criminal justice system require a re-think. That began during Michael Gove’s period as Justice Secretary where he pursued, up to a point I am sure out of financial necessity, a more liberal agenda aimed at reducing prison numbers. This has stalled under his successor, Liz Truss. The cutbacks in prison officers has led to people missing training and being locked up for 23 hours a day.
The private prisons themselves are under even greater pressure with inexperienced younger personnel. Conditions in prisons are deteriorating and violence is spreading. Denying prisoners who are locked away for 23 hours a day the possibility of a warm shower is borderline inhumane. But there is little press reporting of the shocking conditions in prison and the once-famous parliamentary lobby for prison reform has fizzled out.
The answer is not building more prisons, although many of the old prisons need to be demolished or replaced. The sentencing process needs to be rethought, more community centres and women centres are needed to replace prisons. The issues that lead people to crime, such as poor education, unemployment, domestic abuse, alcohol dependency and drug abuse should be dealt at source. That would reduce crime generally and re offending in particular.
The truth is that the previous government’s “rehabilitation revolution” is failing. While the issues of too many people in prison at a time of austerity are not re-thought properly, riots will continue as will the shocking number of prison suicides and more and more elderly, infirm octogenarians waiting to die as British prisons become death rows for zimmer frame prisoners.
Vicky Pryce’s book Prisonomics was published by Biteback in 2015.