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It is often said that there are no votes in prisons. This, I think, is largely true. Crime and justice has not been a prominent issue during recent elections, but that does not mean that prisons are not political.

Overtly political decisions are made about how people are expected to behave, the rules that they should abide by and what happens when they don’t. Prison is now regarded as the central column of the criminal justice system and not the ultimate sanction available to courts. But surely prison should be a scarce resource?

Soaring incarceration rates in Britain

More than 25 years ago I started working in penal reform when the dark days of the Strangeways riots were seemingly behind us. There was muted optimism following the publication of the Woolf report heralding a more humane, decent and effective prison system.

But the optimism I felt at the time was short lived. The use of prison as a sanction has been on an upward trajectory since the beginning of the twentieth century, yet since the mid-1990s since it has more than doubled with 83,216 men, women and children in prison in mid-April 2018. We have more people in prison than any other state in Western Europe, with an incarceration rate twice as high as Germany.

In the early 1990s, the Home Secretary Michael Howard’s ‘prison works’ mantra was underpinned by Tony Blair, Labour’s shadow, whose rhetoric of ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ has become famous. This is the point at which prison numbers begin to steeply climb.

The political rhetoric and the concomitant use of prison has been shown to mirror public outcry over high profile crimes, not least the murder of James Bulger. I fear that though they cannot be ignored, such events have been co-opted by the political classes to steer the nation on a punitive path that may actually be counterproductive.

New criminal offences

Successive governments have relied on the criminal justice system to deal with a whole panoply of issues. Criminal justice legislation – and increased criminalisation – has until recently has been a regular feature of the parliamentary timetable.

In the Howard League’s evidence to the Justice Select Committee’s Inquiry into the Prison Population 2022 we suggest that between May 2010 and May 2014, 1076 new criminal offences were created in England and Wales, approximately two-thirds of which carry possible custodial penalties.

There has also been an increase in the creation of Acts of Parliament which are law-and-order related. According to our estimates, a mere 11 law-and-order Acts were passed between 1980 and 1989, with another 11 passed between 1990 and 1999. 31 such Acts were then passed between 2000 and 2009, and so far since 2010 there have been 26.

Longer sentences

However, by far the biggest impact is due to the fact that sentences have become longer. Over the past ten years, average sentence lengths, imposed by sentencers, have increased by 24 per cent across the board. For certain offence types the rise in sentence lengths is particularly notable. For example: over the past ten years, average prison sentences for fraud offences have increased by 54 per cent; average prison sentences for miscellaneous crimes against society have increased by 45 per cent; average prison sentences for criminal damage and arson have increased by 118 per cent; and average prison sentences for robbery increased by 51 per cent.

There is an over-representation of young men in from BAME backgrounds in prison, and a preponderance of poor health including high levels of mental health needs and addiction.

A further contributing factor is the use of recall (when an offender has been released on licence or parole and they breach a condition of their release). Since 1995 the number of people in prison due to recall has increased by approximately 4,000 per cent, from about 150 people on any given day in June 1995 to 6,186 people on 30 September 2017.

This statistic is indicative of the greater number of people who now spend a period on licence since the last government’s transforming rehabilitation reforms whereby short sentence prisoners are now liable to a period on licence. But this is only part of the picture as research has shown that recall occurs not because a person has reoffended, but following an administrative breach for instance being late for an appointment or any behaviour that worries an offender manager.

Should prison incapacitate or rehabilitate?

In these circumstances can we rely on prisons not just to incapacitate but to rehabilitate people? The evidence of the recent past makes this assumption at best questionable. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, characterised prisons as being as in crisis and chaotic – indeed in recent months he has condemned the leadership at Liverpool prison and nationally, for its “abject failure” to provide a safe, decent and purposeful regime. While at Nottingham prison he triggered, for the first time, the Urgent Notification Protocol because the prison was “fundamentally unsafe.”

The Prisons Inspectorate is just one voice in an ever-louder chorus from Independent Monitoring Boards, charities and academics about the state of prisons. Prisons are dirty and decrepit. And they are full. The most severely overcrowded are Leeds, Wandsworth and Durham prisons each holding around 50 per cent more prisoners than they should safely hold.

Recent research by the Howard League showers that the number of officers fell by as much as 40 per cent when the prison budgets shrank. This means that there are fewer staff to unlock doors, take prisoners to work, education, training or exercise – so they have nothing to do, little purposeful activity and so it is not surprising that tensions will rise.

And violence does appear endemic. Incidents of assault and self-injury are at their highest levels since current recording practices began in 1978. If there is no purposeful activity, prisoners may well look to other ways to make the time pass more quickly; it comes as no surprise that there is evidence of increasing drug use in prison.

The public is not being well served by prisons. A crude measure of effectiveness is reoffending rates with 44 per cent of adults being reconvicted within one year of release. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 59 per cent. The National Audit Office estimates that reoffending by all recent ex-prisoners costs the economy between £9.5 and £13 billion annually.

Reduce the number of people in prisons

We cannot build our way out of this mess. Building more jails only causes problems to grow; it does not solve them. The most sensible way to tackle the problem is to reduce the number of people in prison instead. Why is it that other western European democracies do not lock up as many of their citizens? I do not see their communities characterised by endemic crime. And it is not just in Europe, in the US some 35 states cut their prison rates between 2008 and 2016 and reduced their crime rates.

This does not mean that we condone crime. It means we need to think differently and find solutions elsewhere. In Scotland, for instance, the focus is on investment in community sentences. And some of the best solutions are to be found in welfare and social policies like Surestart schemes and public health approaches to knife violence.

If prison has such poor outcomes, surely it is time to take a different approach? The public – whatever that amorphous word means – want to feel safe, so there needs to be clear political leadership rather than the current Justice Secretary merry-go-round.

We need the kind of political leadership that supports people to be active citizens, and diverts them away from the criminal justice system. Politicians need to be brave and look away from prison as the answer.
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