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Why we must reduce the prison population rather than build new prisons

A poisoned chalice. Anthony Devlin/ PA Wire

The justice secretary Liz Truss has published a new bill to reform the prison and court system in England and Wales. The Prisons and Courts Bill proposes new laws emphasising audits and league tables of prisons and a legal responsibility for both prison staff and the secretary of state for justice to ensure that prisons reform offenders.

The bill has been published following a white paper on prison reform, and the announcement in November 2016 of the government’s £1.3 billion prison building revolution, which will increase capacity of the prison estate by 10,000 places. Yet the historical and contemporary evidence overwhelmingly shows that we cannot build our way out of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in our prisons. Prisons create crime; they do not reduce it. Paradoxically, if we want to reduce crime we must first reduce prison populations – but the new bill does not recognise this.

Prisoner reform and rehabilitation has been the goal of penal administrators since the 1800s. But the golden fleece has never been found. The commitment to reform, more foolhardy than brave and perhaps focused more on placing greater responsibility on prison staff than ministers, will inevitably turn into a poisoned chalice.

The problem of rehabilitation

The reformed prisons of the 1800s, with their new emphasis on rehabilitation, were invented to destroy the criminal personality and bring to life a new law-abiding identity. Predicated upon violence, prisons have proved spectacularly successful at creating suffering and death, but have failed miserably in their attempts to create new life.

A new responsibility to reform offenders through increased emphasis on how prisons are managed will not address the underlying problems of prisons: we cannot effectively care for people in institutions of violence. Transformations must be voluntary rather than coerced. Prisons break rather than facilitate family ties and it is impossible to teach people how to live in freedom while in captivity.

Prisons are antiquated institutions, ill-suited to deal with people with complex social needs. The new bill, which had its first reading in the House of Commons on February 23, acknowledges that prisons are a revolving door where prisoners repeatedly return to prison, but doesn’t mention that many violent offenders are first incarcerated for non-violent property or drugs offences.

Nearly half of all adult prisoners are reconvicted within one year of release. There were record numbers of self-inflicted deaths in 2016, and there has been a spate of highly visible prison disturbances across the country in recent months. Prisons are undoubtedly failing.

Prison populations have been reduced before

The average daily prison (ADP) estimate on February 17, 2017 stood at 85,528 people. This is double what it was in 1992. It is also an incredible eight times higher than in the late 1930s.

In 1908, more than 200,000 people were sent to prison, largely for short sentences. The ADP that year was 22,029, yet by 1918 it had halved to 9,196. By the late 1930s, there were 11,000 in prison, and fewer than 40,000 people were sentenced to prison each year.

The prison population in England and Wales was cut by promoting alternatives in place of prison sentences, abolishing imprisonment for debt and allowing time for fines to be paid. The main reason for the collapse in prison numbers, however, was because politicians and the judiciary recognised that prisons were brutal institutions that did not work.

In the early 20th century, suffragettes, prisoners of war, conscientious objectors to World War I, political prisoners and those criminalised for their homosexuality all directly experienced prisons. Prisoners, like Lady Constance Lytton, who was sister-in-law to a Liberal prime minster, talked openly about the pain and unnecessary suffering of prison. A bad conscience was created among the political elite about the use of imprisonment.

We need politicians today to once again recognise that the only rational way forward is to radically reduce prison populations.

More prisons won’t help

There should be an immediate moratorium on building more prisons. A clear message should be sent to the judiciary that for relatively harmless offences, or where an offender is considered vulnerable, a prison sentence should, if at all possible, be avoided.

There are some ideas proposed by the government regarding children, mental health, drug-taking and the release of prisoners being kept indeterminately for “public protection” that could be progressive, but only if interventions operate outside from the criminal law.

The age of criminal responsibility should be raised as soon as possible from ten to 16 years and diversion schemes introduced which keep young people out of the criminal process. Petty but persistent property offenders should be dealt with in their own community through schemes that help build a collective sense of safety and redress for the harm done, as well as fostering notions of respect and responsibility for all.

The call by Truss for quicker and more certain access to mental health treatment for offenders and their subsequent diversion from the criminal process should be top priority for new funding. It is a similar story for drug takers. Data from 2016 indicates that 64% of prisoners have taken drugs in the four weeks prior to custody.

As my research has shown, residential therapeutic communities work in addressing substance misuse and one of the key goals should be promoting such treatment. In addition, the vast majority of women prisoners have been sentenced for petty and non-violent offences and could be released through probation, home monitoring or amnesties. Judges could also pilot the introduction of prison waiting lists for women offenders.

Society needs to once again recognise that prisons are places of intense harm and suffering. Rather than increasing the size of the penal estate, we should instead profoundly regret the existence of prisons at all and do all we can to reduce the number of people incarcerated.

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