David Scott, The Open University
The prison system is now widely considered to be in crisis, with the most recent damning revelations coming from a BBC documentary about Sodexo run jail HMP Northumberland
Prison does not work. Prisons are antiquated institutions that are particularly ill-suited to dealing with people with complex social needs or in response to people who have perpetrated acts of violence. More than half of adult prisoners are reconvicted within one year of release; there were record numbers of self-inflicted deaths in 2016; and there have been a spate of highly visible prison disturbances across the country in recent months.
These and other intractable problems – such drug taking, mental ill-health, demoralised staff, violence, fear, insecurity and difficulties in maintaining order / control – were all exposed in the BBC Panorama programme on HMP Northumberland earlier this week.
Reducing prison populations in the past
The Average Daily Prison population in England and Wales stands today at 85,000 people and this is more than double what it was in December 1992. The current prison population is also an incredible eight times higher than that of the late 1930s. In 1908 more than 200,000 people were sent to prison that year, largely for very short sentences. The Average Daily Population was 22,029 that year. Yet, by 1918 the Average Daily Population had more than halved to 9,196.
By the late 1930s the Average Daily Population had stabilised at around 11,000, significantly with less than 40,000 people sentenced to prison each year. The Average Daily Population was to fall below 10,000 again shortly after the start of World War Two.
The prison population in England and Wales was dramatically cut through diversion schemes; genuine alternatives in place of prison sentences; the abolishment of imprisonment for debt; and by allowing time for fines to be paid by offenders.
Lady Constance Lytton, a suffraggette, prisoner and sister in law of Liberal prime-minster
The main reason the prison population collapsed, however, was because there was a political commitment to do so. There was recognition among politicians that prisons were brutal institutions that did not work. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a number of wealthy and influential people experienced imprisonment – suffragettes, prisoners of war, conscientious objectors to World War One, political prisoners and those imprisoned for their (homo)sexuality.
Rich and influential former prisoners, like the suffragette Lady Constance Lytton, who was sister in law to a former Liberal prime-minster, talked openly and wrote about the pain and unnecessary suffering generated by prisons. As such a bad conscience about using prisons was created among the political elite. Despite many changes in prison policy over the last 100 years, prisons remain in many ways the same today.
The current government agenda
The Conservative government will shortly release its new Prisons and Courts Bill. It is set on the path of building five new ‘super-sized’ prisons and increasing capacity of the prison estate by 10,000 places over the coming years.
Yet, the historical and contemporary evidence overwhelmingly shows we cannot build our way out of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in our prisons on a daily basis. What is required are policies, like those of 100 years ago, that can immediately reduce the prison population.
HMP Berwyn under construction in 2016
Alternative policy proposals
The policy suggestions are simple but not easy. A starting point would be to halt plans to build the five new mega-prisons. There should be an immediate prison building moratorium. A clear and unequivocal message should also be sent to the judiciary that in cases of relatively harmless offences or where the person who has broken the law has considerable vulnerabilities, that a prison sentences should, if at all possible, be avoided.
The call for penal reductionism is sometimes referred to as “playing the get out of jail free card”
The age of criminal responsibility should be raised as soon as possible 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 vast majority of women prisoners have been sentenced for petty and non-violent offences and could be released through probation, home monitoring or amnesties. Sentencers could also pilot the introduction of prison waiting lists for women offenders.
Residential therapeutic communities have been shown to work in addressing problematic behaviours and drug usage and could be expanded to help deal with the estimated 45,000 ‘problematic drug users’ in prison. There should also be further priority given to diverting people with mental health problems from the criminal process.
Politicians and members of the public need to once again recognise that prisons are places of intense pain, harm and suffering. Rather than defending the size of current prison populations, our high ranking politicians and members of the judiciary should profoundly regret the existence of the prison at all.
Public education, informed rational debates and deep-seated reflections on exactly what the prison is and what it does to people, are urgently required. Perhaps then, calls for a radical reduction in prison population will be warmly welcomed.