“Prison works” – the mantra of Michael Howard, former leader of the Conservative party.  

David Green (Financial Times 2013):

“Here is a thought-experiment: imagine that you have asked some mischievous demon to conceive the most counter-productive way of dealing with crime. What fiendish scheme would this diabolic agent devise? The demon could suggest a system where offenders are kept together with more serious and experienced criminals for months or years, and so can learn from them; where the offender is taken away from any gainful employment and social support or family network; where the offender is put in places where drugs and brutality are rife; where the infliction of a penalty can make the offender more, and not less, likely to re-offend; and where all this is done at extraordinary expense for the taxpayer. A system, in other words, very much like the prison system we now have in England and Wales, as well as in many other jurisdictions.”
And I’m afraid that nothing has changed over the last 10 years. Well, not quite true. We now have prisons which are so overcrowded that Judges are being asked not to send people to prison, not because of a new-found leniency, but because we don’t have enough cells.

In earlier times, prisons were where you kept those charged with a crime until their cases could be heard and the actual sentence, hanging, flogging or transportation – could be imposed. Imprisonment itself was not the punishment for criminal activity. Of course imprisonment was sometimes used against rivals in a fight for power. But around 1800 imprisonment became the usual punishment for crime. For many, though, the loss of liberty was not enough: prisons had to follow the model of debtors’ prisons and work-houses and so be as brutal as possible – supposedly to ‘discourage’ repeat behaviour.

Nowadays, retribution through imprisonment is still how society thinks about the punishment of crime. A convicted person who receives a sanction falling short of imprisonment will nonetheless be described “as walking free from court” by outraged newspapers to their outraged readers. This, even though the criminal may be fined or required to do community service or be on probation or subject to a suspended sentence for an extended period - and liable to be incarcerated if they don’t comply with the terms of the order.

But there is no general wish to replace our present system, least of all by populist politicians wanting to be re-elected. Of course, those who pose a danger to others or commit murders and other serious offences against the person should indeed be locked away – and subject to whole-life tariffs in very exceptional circumstances.

When Margaret Thatcher left office in 1990 there were only 45,000 prisoners in jail. ‘Prison works’, a mantra introduced in 1993 by Michael Howard, the then leader of the Conservative party, however, reversed a brief period of Tory liberalism during which prison numbers had fallen. Labour home secretary David Blunkett’s 2003 Criminal Justice Act increased life sentences from an average of 12 to more than 20 years. This led to soaring numbers of prisoners in jail.

Prisons are now bursting at the seams mainly because of ever-lengthening sentences – even though the Sentencing Council itself finds scant evidence that more time in jail does any good in terms of reform. The more politicians call for and implement tougher sentences, the greater the public taste for even stiffer penalties, stoked by the tabloid press.

Apparently, it costs an average of £40,000 per annum to keep someone locked up: just under £4 billion for the current prison population of 95,000. And this doesn’t take into account the strain on the benefits system from families who have lost a parent to the system or the negative effect on succeeding generations of having a part-time parent. Neither does it factor in what the Public Accounts committee described as the “eye-watering” backlog of repairs needed in UK prisons – they will cost £1bn.

The government has claimed it will spend £4bn on expanding prisons, but there is so far little evidence of the money being spent. And of course, what is needed are fewer prisons with properly paid and trained staff, and good rehabilitation programmes to discourage repeat offending. But unless and until the public can be persuaded to see the advantages of persuading offenders not to re-offend, the current expensive and damaging system will continue.

I’ve read recently about a fairly typical prison – one in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. Its latest chief inspector’s report paints a dismal picture. The prison has been rated poor on safety, poor on purposeful activity, not sufficiently good on rehabilitation and release plans. It has an inadequate daily regime (prisoners are allowed only two hours a day out of their cells, and even that is only on weekdays).

It is running at below capacity, but not owing to a lack of demand for places. It is because one large unit has closed due to a lack of staff. The report concludes that staff shortages caused mainly by low pay are “the single most limiting factor to progress”, making it “inevitable” that outcomes “will deteriorate even further”. This, it says, is “despite committed and enthusiastic leadership”. Staff stay in post for three years or less. Most are inexperienced, yet their work involves overseeing dangerous and complex category-A prisoners.

Unsurprisingly, as in every prison, nearly half of Woodhill’s prisoners will be back. People spend long periods of time behind bars, cut off from family and social circles, with very limited contact with the outside world. Incarceration is their punishment but, during it, only lip-service is paid to the concept of rehabilitation. And then, to make matters worse, when released, offenders are given just £76, with many of them having no place to live.

Finding a job after prison is a good safeguard against recidivism, as the evidence shows, but it is hard for ex-prisoners to get a job. Destitution pushes former prisoners into crime. If re-socialisation is an aim of the criminal justice system, it is certainly not something that is properly supported post-release.

In the days of the chain gang, forced manual work was part of the punishment. That has now been banned – in theory, although perhaps not everywhere. Work in prison ought to provide an opportunity to feel useful, to earn some money that can be spent on things that can be purchased in prison, and support dependents outside prison. The prisoners could even accrue savings to start rebuilding their lives post-release.

The regulations governing prison labour however provide for a level of pay well below even the minimum pay required in the normal world of work. Often, work in prison is limited to cooking and cleaning with work for outside bodies very limited - for example, packing parcels for the likes of DHL.

What is worse is that even when meaningful work is on offer it ends up being exploitative. A convicted prisoner, Mr Pimm, issued a claim to the Employment Tribunal, claiming that he was entitled to proper payment for the work he did. In 2017 and 2018, when in prison, he worked as a ‘Learning and Skills Coach’, supporting less educated prisoners. Hi  job description said that he would be doing three sessions a day on weekdays, and two sessions per day at the weekend. Each session was paid the tiny amount of £1.70, far below the statutory minimum wage. The Judge, however, had to dismiss the claim as working prisoners were not ‘workers’ in the legal sense.

Britain has more prisons per head of population than most similar European countries. Research a couple of years ago led by a professor of law at Birkbeck, Mike Hough, showed that people think sentences are getting lighter than they were 25 years ago, despite the opposite being the case. Some 76% of those expressing an opinion said sentences were getting shorter and were too lenient, even though in reality average sentence lengths had increased. When asked what punishments ought to be meted out instead, the public often choose custodial sentences that were very close to what they already actually were.

But such ignorance keeps the pressure on politicians to avoid the radical reform needed to produce a system which not only keeps us safe and discourages criminal activity, but which also reintroduces offenders back into society. That, instead of one which inevitably gives us overflowing jails with criminals destined to come back time and again.

‘Prison works’? No, it doesn’t.

3rd February 2024

Paul Buckingham

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