America’s penal arms race holds few lessons for the UK

Alcatraz has shut, but many more prisons have opened since in the US. Shobe834/Flickr

It appears that Britain is following the United States in its addiction to the use of prison terms. The USA has led the way in the penal arms race with the introduction of such measures as “three strikes and you are out” and life without parole that have combined to increase the rates of imprisonment.

Now the new community supervision plan for offenders flagged by justice secretary Chris Grayling will result in more than 1,000 extra people being put in prison each month. It is very much in keeping with his political style. Since being given the justice portfolio last year, Grayling has made it clear that he firmly believes in the expansion of the prison system and the use of punishment rather than rehabilitation.

In answer to Conservative backbencher Philip Davies, who was unhappy that Chris Huhne and his former wife Vicky Pryce only served half of their eight-months behind bars and called for reforms which would force prisoners to complete their sentences, Grayling said he had “sympathy” with his colleague’s views and promised “further reassurances … in due course”.

It is an approach that would surprise few in the US. American academic Jonathan Simon has called the process whereby law and order becomes a politically powerful issue “governing through crime”. This is a short-hand for the ways in which, concerns about crime (particularly violent crime) alter our behaviour as citizens and lead to the exploitation of crime by the media and politicians.

It must be acknowledged that US neo–cons have played their hand superbly on this issue. The Willie Horton attack ad, which helped sink Michael Dukakis’s already floundering 1988 presidential campaign, is an excellent example of the use of a brutal crime for political ends.

Land of the free?

There are now more than two million US citizens in prison. The Land of the Free is home to more than 25% of the world’s prisoners.

In the 1970s, criminologists were seriously considering how the prison as an institution was on the verge of disappearing and pondering how it would be replaced as the central penal mechanism in liberal democracies. Foucault’s magisterial study of the birth of the modern prison Discipline and Punish and the response to it triggered an increased interest in the role of the criminal justice system and other forms of social discipline.

But since the late 1970s, the prison system has expanded in a number of liberal democracies. This expansion has taken place in a period where crime – always difficult to measure – has largely been falling.

In Europe, nowhere has followed the US trajectory quite like England and Wales. When one of Grayling’ predecessors, Kenneth Clarke, was appointed to the justice portfolio in 2010 he was returning to a post he had held 20 years before. In the interim, the prison population had virtually doubled and stood at more than 88,000. It should be noted that this was despite the UK having a supposedly progressive or left-of-centre government.

Era of hard Labour

Meanwhile, the left’s traditional focus on the rehabilitation of offenders has been replaced by a fear that such parties will be seen as weak on crime. Under Tony Blair, a succession of home secretaries: Jack Straw, David Blunkett and John Reid, all ensured that New Labour could not be accused on being too soft on crime.

This came following the penal policy of Tory home secretary Michael Howard, who famously reversed the policy that prison “is an expensive way of making bad people worse” when he declared in a speech to the 1991 Tory Party conference that “prison works”.

Grayling is a politician very much in the Howard mould. Having cut his teeth on welfare reform, he moved to the justice portfolio and seems acutely aware of the possible dangers of being involved in running a department responsible for the criminal justice system. From his early pronouncement that prisoners would have to earn privileges, he has established a clear policy agenda of the continued expansion of the prison system and the use of punitive options.

Just visiting: justice secretary Chris Grayling.

In his 2001 study Culture of Control, David Garland outlined what he saw as the decline of the rehabilitative ideal. Offenders are no longer seen as citizens who can change their behaviour, but as social outcasts. The expansion in prison numbers allegedly keeps the wider society safe. The “warehouse prison” fails to offer the level of social support and therapeutic programmes that are required to help prisoners turn their lives around.

In the US and UK, there is a body of evidence (the Corston Inquiry, Bradley Review and a number of HM prison inspections) that shows prisoners are more likely to have drug, alcohol or mental health problems. For example, 38% of young male offenders have been in care, while more than a third of female prisoners are adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

The lessons of the expansion of the use of imprisonment over the past 30 years need to be critically reviewed. On its own terms, prison as an institution fails – the high recidivism rates alone indicate this. But in the UK, politicians seem addicted to a programme of prison building. One thing that Chris Grayling has learnt is that, if you build a prison it will soon be full.

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