By Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, THE INDEPENDENT
30 August 2007
Britain's prison system is on the verge of collapse. Our crumbling jails have reached breaking point, prisoners are being released early and now, for the first time in their history, the men and women paid to guard the inmates have left their posts.
It's a desperate situation made worse by the grim truth that prison has failed to stop inmates re-offending. And suicide rates remain alarmingly high, a fact brought home by the death of another inmate yesterday.
How long can politicians continue to tell us that the only way to avert this crisis is by building more prisons? Britain already imprisons more people per capita than any other country in Western Europe and if the trend continues the number of inmates will pass 100,000 in the next decade.
Labour's response is to pledge 10,000 more prison places by 2012. The Tories have committed to using prison ships and disused army camps so that all inmates see out their sentences.
For many years Britain's penal reformers have been warning of where these increasingly draconian policies will lead.
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, says we are using a Victorian invention to tackle a 21st-century problem: "Prison does nothing to deter offending. Yet our obsession with placing punishment... over cutting crime has led to gross overcrowding."
Justice, the human rights group, says it is impossible to have a sensible debate about penal reform because it has been become bogged down in "electioneering rhetoric and swamped by legislative hyperactivity".
This week an ICM poll showed that only 40 per cent of the public thought the government should aim to send more criminals to prison, against 57 per cent who want to see other, non-custodial forms of punishment.
Now that politicians can see that radical alternatives to prison may no longer alienate the electorate they have little excuse for not trying something different.
An impossible task for a beleaguered institution
Published: 30 August 2007
Yesterday saw the first national walkout by members of the Prison Officers' Association in its 68-year history. The strike was, on the face of it, about pay. But there is more to it than that. The dispute is an alarming barometer of the state of the nation's prisons where staff morale is at rock-bottom.
As ever with the issue of prisons, the fact of low morale and the reasons for it should take no one by surprise. Earlier this month a national ballot among prison officers revealed 87 per cent ready to take industrial action. This time last year a strike was only narrowly averted. And statistics on stress, sickness and staff turnover have long revealed a dispirited workforce. That is because they are asked to do an impossible task in conditions of under-funding, overcrowding, and in a system which has never resolved whether it is about punishment or rehabilitation.
David Cameron yesterday emphasised the punishment agenda, in launching what the party's right wing heralded as his most significant policy pledges yet. He promised that a Conservative government would build or create more prisons, using prison ships and disused army camps. It would also abolish early release and make convicts serve their full sentences.
But the grim fact is that there are already too many people in the nation's jails. And in 10 years of government Labour has offered no new solutions, despite Tony Blair's pledge to address the causes of crime. Large numbers of people are imprisoned for comparatively trivial offences. Many prisoners are addicted to drugs or mentally ill and would be better treated elsewhere.
Building more prisons cannot be the answer. In the past decade 12 new jails have opened and most are already overcrowded. A result is that record numbers of inmates are committing suicide, staff sickness is higher than ever, drug use is widespread and purposeful activity such as education, employment or exercise for each prisoner is declining. Many prisoners are locked up idle for most of the day. Some prisons have even had to re-introduce slopping out.
We need to send fewer people to prison. The Sentencing Guidelines Council should gear its work towards reducing sentence lengths, cutting the number of short-term prisoners and countering the sentence-inflation built into the present system. The police and Crown Prosecution Service must divert more low-risk offenders from prosecution. Magistrates should cut the numbers on remand. Politicians must seek alternatives to prison for the large numbers of offenders who are no real danger to the community. The prison service must seek a new flexibility in mixing prison and community punishment in a single sentence – with halfway houses, weekend prisons, individual curfews, exclusion orders and other innovations.
Inside jails we need better education and drug rehabilitation programmes. Half of all burglary, vehicle crime and shoplifting is committed by drug-users, yet very few prisoners ever receive help with their drug problems, despite a host of government pledges. Half of all prisoners have the reading age of an 11-year-old or below. Yet although it famously costs £38,000 a year to keep someone in prison – sending them to Eton would be cheaper – less than 3 per cent of that goes on education. Small wonder that 58 per cent of all prisoners are reconvicted of a further offence within two years of leaving prison.
There is more to justice than locking people up. Prisoners are often multiply disadvantaged, in education, moral training and lack of family support. Addressing this would go a long way to reducing re-offending. And we would need to send far fewer people to prison in the first place.