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11 July 2024

How Labour will deal with the prisons crisis

The Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood has been told that space will run out in less than three weeks.

By Freddie Hayward

Austerity hit the public realm at an angle. Some parts, such as education and the NHS, were largely protected from cuts while others, such as welfare and local government, were shattered. Prisons became drug-filled anarchies in which guards were beaten, and reoffending rates rose.

The problem grew because politicians could ignore it. Prisons sit beneath the public’s consciousness because incarceration is one function of the state most people do not see. We all use the NHS; we don’t all “use” the prison service. But breaking point is approaching. The system faces Hemingway-esque collapse, gradually then suddenly.

For months, Labour has looked on the prisons crisis with trepidation, anxious about the outrage if days into office riots erupted. The Prison Governors’ Association warned last month there would soon be no more prison places. The new Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood has been told that prison space will run out in less than three weeks. How did we get here?

Throughout the 2010s, offenders were sent to prison for more and more time. As the Institute for Government catalogued in a recent report, sentences for robbery, for instance, were 13 months longer in 2023 than in 2012. Meanwhile, the criminal justice system became dysfunctional, stranding those awaiting trial in prison. But the problem was dismissed; higher sentences were judged to sound more “law and order” than giving prison guards more money to boost retention, or building the prisons needed to house a bulging population.

Alex Chalk, the most recent Tory justice secretary, could see crisis ahead and tried to get the government to start releasing prisoners early. Rishi Sunak reportedly resisted because he was worried about being seen as weak on crime. Now, the problem has fallen to Labour. The new government is expected to reduce the threshold at which prisoners are released from 50 per cent to 40 per cent of their served prison sentence. An announcement is expected on Friday.

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One of Labour’s key missions is to halve violence against women and girls. The plan includes boosting the conviction rate for rapists and domestic abusers. Nicole Jacobs, the government’s domestic abuse commissioner, has warned this could mean an additional 10,000 convictions at a time when there is no space in prison. The immediate need to prevent catastrophe cuts against Labour’s promise to usher in more sustainable, effective public services that manage to charge more than three in ten accused rapists.

This is an important test for whether Keir Starmer will live up to his soap-box promise to ditch Westminster’s trademark short-term fixes in favour of sustainable solutions. The country needs more prison space, evidently. The state being forced to release prisoners early, rather than choosing to do so, will undermine the public’s already low trust in the criminal justice system as well as contribute to the sense that elected government has little power to enact its promises. Even if Starmer’s appointment of James Timpson, a reformist-minded liberal, as prisons ministers shows he wants to turn prisons into a place of rehabilitation, not punishment, Labour will still need more prison space. Regardless of your views on the purpose of incarceration, crowded, violent prisons serve no one.

It is these gritty, hidden problems with the basic functions of the state that Starmer promised to fix. To deliver before the next election, Labour will need to go beyond just early release.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Keir Starmer beyond the wall]

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