Learning from your friends’ mistakes

March 29, 2009 at 8:29 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 2 Comments

An abandoned prison in Atlanta, taken by Flickr user erokCom (Creative Commons)

I don’t know if it’s because of her upbringing or because she spends hours making greetings cards in her spare time, but my mother’s always been a walking receptacle for homespun wisdom. Quite often, when she sees an upsetting news story about poverty or starvation or the ravages of war, she’ll sigh, then turn to me, my Dad or brother, and say “y’see love, there’s always someone worse off than you”. In a roundabout way, they’re meant as words of comfort & assurance; a reminder that no matter what hardship or worry one of us might have on a given day, our pains are small & blessings plentiful compared to the many millions of people who make up the great elsewhere. Trite as it may be, there are times when I wonder whether that truism should be this blog’s tagline.

Like most other political bloggers, I spend a lot of time on this these pages ruminating over various wrongs, whining over some perceived slight or trying to find ever more dramatic ways to convince my readers that what I’m writing about is The Most Important Thing You’ll Read All Day. Sure, there are some very serious posts about matters of life & death, and they’ll often warrant the weighty tone in which they’re written. But there are also days when you need to rediscover your sense of perspective.

Anyone who’s visited this place regularly will know that one of my pet arguments is about the need for profound reform of the criminal justice system, and in particular our prison service. I still believe that’s absolutely true, and there’s not one post on the topic that I’d wish to walk back or water down. But it’s also true that in the process of writing about it so frequently and constantly talking up the crises in the system, I give the slightly misleading impression that those things are unique to this country, or that Britain is the world’s worst offender. So just to rediscover our sense of perspective, let’s take a brief look across the Atlantic.


The chart to the left shows the worldwide incarceration rate, which is the number of people in prison per 100,000 of the population. As you can see, England & Wales currently occupies the bronze medal position, but the gap between the number of people we imprison compared to the United States is just staggering. The chart’s taken from a slideshow prepared by the office of Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), who’s beginning to speak out about the need to look at root & branch reform of America’s entire criminal justice system.

Webb’s presentation shows that whilst America has only 5% of the world’s population, it boasts 25% of the world’s prison population. 2.4 Americans are currently incarcerated – a rate which is 5 times higher than the global average, and the correctional facilities costs the country a whopping $68 billion pounds a year. Makes you wonder why ‘fiscal conservatives’ aren’t all up in arms, doesn’t it?

For the British sympathiser, there are some factors to the American prison experience which we should be thankful aren’t yet replicated here. For one, sentences for drug offences are far stricter, under the delusion that tough sentencing acts as a deterrant. It was America which gave ‘get tough!’ lobbies around the world the idea of a “three strikes & you’re out” rule, which imposes mandatory life sentences for those find guilty of repeat offending. As a result of this and other ‘mandatory minimums’, the number of incarcerated drug offenders has soared 1200% since 1980, and, to the best of my knowledge, America still has an abundance of drugs, drug users and drug dealers. Deterrance this ain’t.

The racial disparities are also far more acute in America than in Britain,with African Americans far more likely to be arrested on drugs charges than other groups, and organised gangs have infiltrated much further into prisons than they’ve been able to in our jails. Finally, any attempts by the likes of Senator Webb to begin reform are much trickier to pull off, as America’s federal system of governance means that any change instigated in Washington won’t mean very much unless it’s followed by changes in policy at a state level. In a country where ‘soft on crime’ has been so many good politicians’ epitaphs, that’s an incredibly big ask.

But whilst there are big differences in the scale of the problems our countries face, I also think there’s much in the American example which should serve as a cautionary tale. It’s the American system of warehousing inmates in huge megajails which has provided the inspiration for the government’s much-criticised ‘Titan prisons‘ – a polcy that promises to do little to increase rehabilitation, but threatens to do much to increase drug use, violence & gang activity within prison walls. The American example also demonstrates the dangers of giving responsibility to the private sector; private prisons have proved no more efficient than their public-owned peers, and the culture of cost-cutting leads to more violence and successful escapes. The fact that a moderate Democrat in a conservative state is talking about the need for reform should tell progressives all they need to know about the dangers of mimicking the U.S.’ approach to punishment.

As always, my mum is right; there is always someone worse off than you. But if this post demonstrates anything, it’s that we should be eager to learn from the mistakes & misfortunes of our friends so that we can avoid repeating them. Unfortunately, there are still very few signs that we’re able to do that.


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  1. […] struggle‘. He’s also started trying to raise awareness about America’s broken prisons, and is proposing reforms to the criminal justice system and drug laws which might lead to fewer […]

  2. […] struggle‘. He’s also started trying to raise awareness about America’s broken prisons, and is proposing reforms to the criminal justice system and drug laws which might lead to fewer […]

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