Prisoner, heal thyself

July 1, 2010 at 9:21 am | Posted in Prison Reform | 4 Comments

As the convergence of Labour and the Tory right on prison reform continues, David Green writes:

Above all, the Coalition does not accept the fundamental liberal precept that we should be seen as free individuals, each responsible for our own actions. Criminals are not patients being treated by the ‘therapeutic state’, they are free people who made the wrong choice. Ironically the Lib-Dems are the main obstacle to a genuinely liberal approach based on personal responsibility, an approach that should be the heart of policy on crime as well as the renewal of civil society implied by the Big-Society agenda. The big danger for the Coalition Government is that adopting Lib-Dem policies will lead to an increase in crime when we already have enough problems to cope with.

First off, quit whingeing about the Liberal Democrats and spinning this as a regrettable consequence of coalition politics. Penal reform is a Conservative policy, written in Conservative pre-election policy documents by Conservative policymakers and espoused by Conservative politicians. If the ‘prison works’ coalition really wishes to shake off the stench of progress, they should go and join UKIP. Or Labour.

Next, it’s a feat of heroic myopia to contend that criminals are just ‘free people who made the wrong choice’, as if they entered the criminal justice system unemcumbered by any disabling influences on their lives.

Around 50% of prisoners ran away from home as a child and 27% were taken into care. 30% truanted from school, 49% of men were excluded and 52% left without any qualifications. 65% of prisoners have the numeracy levels of 11-year olds, 48% have the reading age of 11-year-olds and 67% were unemployed before imprisonment. 32% of prisoners were homeless, over 70% suffer from two or more mental disorders and around 60% had abused drugs in the past year (Bromley Briefings, p20).

The people entering our prison systems did make bad choices; they failed themselves, their families and their communities. Most people in our prisons are deserving of a period of incarceration. But they were also failed themselves. They were failed by their own families, by their communities, by their schools and by their state, and now find themselves caught up in a cycle of offending and incarceration which is difficult to break even with the help & support that’s currently on offer.

To suggest that it’s possible for these people to simply rehabilitate themselves without assistance from the state which locked them up suggests either complete ignorance of the problems in society or a stubborn refusal to see prison as anything more than a warehouse for human waste. In that sense, the ‘prison works’ coalition is one of the more craven and nasty groups in modern mainstream politics.

Prison works? No thanks, Jack

June 30, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 2 Comments

As Justice Secretary, it often felt like Jack Straw was motivated more by a desire to protect the public from liberals than from criminals. In his inglorious time in government, Straw’s Labour Party oversaw a record rise in the prison population, dangerous levels of overcrowding and a disastrous early release scheme which completely battered public confidence in the courts. He ignored British and European law on prisoners’ voting rights, fed us policies packed with pure populist junk and blithely suggested that those who complained simply didn’t care enough about the victims of crime.

So it’s entirely fitting that in his well-deserved stint in opposition, Straw has taken to the Daily Mail to warn once more of the middle-class liberal ‘hand-wringers’ who’ll soon fling open the prison gates and try to cure hardened thugs with hugs & therapy.

As Straw tells it, crime only began to fall in the mid-90’s because of the draconian sentencing regime imposed by Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard. Labour continued his ‘good work’ for the next 13 years and have declining crime rates to show for it, at the small cost of a massively expanded prison population. Now, thanks to an ‘alliance’ between Ken Clarke and 57 Lib Dem MPs, all that good work threatens to be reversed, replaced by liberal ‘hand-wringing’ (a phrase he uses four times) and ignorance of the true cost of crime.

He is, of course, being utterly disengenuous. The speech given by the new Justice Secretary was not the result of some Rasputin-style whispering from Liberal Democrats, but a continuation of Tory policy which existed before there was even a prospect of a coalition. It was the Tories’ ‘Prisons with a Purpose’ paper which suggested they were finally ready to ditch the ‘prison works’ dogma of Howard and raise the profile of rehabilitation as a means of reducing crime. The reason Straw invokes some liberal conspiracy is the same reason the Lib Dems have been invoked as boogeymen by numerous shadow ministers in recent weeks – in the hope that they can turn ‘liberal’ into the new ‘tory’.

There’s still much uncertainty in the coalition’s plan for penal reform, and what happens in the criminal justice system is inevitably influenced by the state of the economy and the availability of housing & jobs for newly-released prisoners. Change of policy, even from the rotten one they inherited, might not necessarily mean change for the better. But what sets the coalition apart from Labour, even at this early stage, is the intention of getting the prison population under control. For Straw, leaving government with a prison population of over 84,000 is almost something to be proud of; for Clarke and the coalition, it is a problem which needs to addressed.

But we should, perhaps, save a few meagre words of thanks for Straw as he whinges into obscurity, for he leaves us with clear dividing lines between his departed government and its successor. We can either long for the return of the ‘prison works’ dogma of Howard & Straw, which led to massive overcrowding, early prisoner release and an inexorable rise in the prison population, or we can hope that a more pragmatic, rehabilitation-focused regime will replace it and help bring that population under control. I know which side I’m rooting for.

Alan Duncan’s new job

September 8, 2009 at 2:02 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Prison Reform | 4 Comments

As demotions go, it could’ve been worse. Whilst Alan Duncan won’t be a member of the cabinet if a Prime Minister Cameron names him Minister for Prisons, the role is still massively important if the Tories are serious about mending their ‘broken society’. With a population of over 80,000, prisons groaning under the weight of over-crowding, and a pathetic rehabilitation rate which means we waste much of the $4bn spent annually, Duncan would oversee an aspect of the criminal justice system in which Labour has been a determined, belligerent, costly failure.

Of course, quite whether he’s up up to the task is a topic for debate; reading some of the assessments from fellow Tories gives the sense that he’s an ineffective, gaffe-prone hack who shouldn’t be trusted to run any department. Granted, as a minister, Mr Duncan would have some supervision (likely Dominic Grieve), but his rather rapid fall from Shadow Secretary of State for Business to a lowly shadow minister doesn’t inspire confidence, and when we have a prison estate which – by the Tories’ own admission – is in a state of crisis, you really want someone competent at the helm.

In the past few years, the Tories have come to resemble Jekyl & Hyde on issues of crime & punishment. It seems all Mr Hyde Chris Grayling has learnt from Labour’s successive Home Secretaries is how well the odd grubby, attention-grabbing gimmick (the ’21st century clip ’round the ear’; getting the state to steal teenagers’ mobile phones) plays in the papers, and I would hope that a presumptive Secretary of State would use his time more productively than coming up with clunky analogies to hip American TV shows.

But what’s gone under-reported is that the Tories’ plans for prison reform aren’t too bad at all; they’re sane, rational and seem focused on achieving long-term goals rather than short-term opportunism. Clearly influenced by the work done by Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, many of the proposals laid out in this document [PDF], if implemented well, could take the prison service in a better direction than the one it’s currently heading in.

The Tories claim that reducing the rate of recidivism will be one of the top priorities, and will create financial incentives for prisons which reduce reoffending, make more money available for rehabilitation programmes and make prison governors accountable for the actions of prisoners once they’ve been released. They accept that whilst new prisons will be necessary to end overcrowding, the warehousing of prisoners in ‘titan’ jails isn’t the way to go. Instead, they propose to build smaller, local prisons and sell off some of the crumbling old dead wood. On top of this, more freedom will be given to prison governors, more opportunities will be offered for third sector agencies to work with inmates, and for charities to help with education & drug rehabilitation. The Tories claim that their proposals would rejuvinate prisons as places of “education, hard work, rehabilitation and restoration.”

Obviously, you can’t just take their word for it; even Tony Blair sounded strong on ‘the causes of crime’ when he was in opposition, and when Labour got into power the prison population soared. Much will depend on budgetary constraints caused by the deficit, whether they can resist the impulse to allow expansion of private sector prisons, and avoid the urge to respond to rising crime with more draconian sentencing. I also don’t think the goals for reducing the prison population are ambitious enough; under the Tories’ plans, the population would still rise to 94,000 by 2020, and whilst that may be an improvement on the projected 100,000 if things stay as they are, it still means locking up around 10,000 more people than we are right now. For me, more needs to be done to find tough alternatives to short (and mostly fruitless) custodial sentences.

That said, this is still much better than anything Labour’s offered recently. If they do what they promise – and if Mr Duncan can’t find new & innovative ways of screwing up – there’s always a chance that it might lead to better outcomes for some prisoners, and slightly safer communities for the rest of us.

Image: Strangeways Prison in Manchester, by Flickr user phil.d (Creative Commons)

Meet the prisoners

July 12, 2009 at 7:18 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | Leave a comment

Reading the Prison Reform Trust’s latest Factfile (PDF) this afternoon, this table really stuck out:

prisoners social characteristics

There are 83,000 people currently incarcerated in England & Wales. Of that number, I’d wager all the money in my pockets that not one of them grew up wanting to do this. Like us, they will have grown up dreaming impossible things; fantasising about future fame or heroics; quietly relishing the adventures of adulthood. Sure, few of us ever come close to achieving the dreams we had as children, but we can at least modify them: replace ‘Premiership footballer’ with ‘a nice house and a happy family’, or ‘astronaut’ with ‘earning just enough to live in comfort’. But for many of the people represented in this table, those hopes have long since disappeared: crushed by violence, abuse, broken homes, drugs, alcohol, poor education, mental disorders, homelessness. Of course inmates bear the ultimate responsibility for the crimes they commit, but the experiences & attitudes we encounter on our way to becoming adults are inevitably shaped by others. For better or worse, we all make each other what we are.

So the starting point for a belief in the need for prison reform is that whilst there are some irredeemably cruel, cynical, evil people in our jails, they are also in the minority. The rest may have lead tough lives or made bad choices (sometimes both), been controlled by a drug habit or hampered by a failure to read, write or offer qualifications in a crowded jobs market. But they are salvageable, and if we replace the tired old dichotomy of ‘tough’ & ‘soft’ (because true reform would require aspects of both) with something which simply seeks to provide a pathway out of crime, we’d not only have a much healthier society, but a reduced burden on the organs of the state.

“Tough on crime” and other bad jokes

May 29, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime, Prison Reform, Social Policy | Leave a comment

I wasn’t planning on writing anything tonight, but I’d just like to highlight an excellent – if disturbing – piece of journalism which aired on BBC’s Look North earlier this evening.

Towards the end of last year, it became apparent that the National Probation Service – the folks whose job it is to ensure that people who commit crimes don’t reoffend – would have to join just about every other branch of the public sector in having their budgets slashed. The cuts, estimated to be as much as £30 million, would have to be made in each area the country and the probation union NAPO warned that this would reduce the service’s already limited capacity to reform offenders, placing the public at greater risk of crime.

Anyway, Look North filed a Freedom of Information request and obtained the Ministry of Justice’s risk assessment document, which looked into the potential impact of any cuts. The document apparently gives ratings from one (negligible) to twenty-five (critical); in West Yorkshire, where £7m is expected to be cut, the impact was rated at twenty four. In other words, the public will be put at greater risk and criminals won’t have the same guidance to help them mend their ways.

Has there ever been a worse time to make cuts in the probation service? A time of deep recession, a time when prisons are so over-crowded that inmates are being released early or not sent to jail at all and a time when the reoffending rate already stands at 62%. Is this really the time to cut the budget of a service which is sometimes the only thing which stands in the way of offenders taking the easy route back to a life of crime?

As one anonymous probation officer told Look North: “We all came into this role to protect the public. We all feel strongly about the value the probation service has had for 100 years. We’re in the scenario now where our very existence seems to be getting stamped out by a government who seem more inclined to run the service like a McDonalds franchise.”

Quite. Of all the strategies this government’s followed in recent years, the notion that it can run the criminal justice system on the cheap has been the most baffling and will, over the long term, prove disastrous. The only irony is that they’ll only notice it when they’re languishing in opposition.

Women’s prisons: a system crying out for change

May 17, 2009 at 7:07 pm | Posted in British Politics, Prison Reform | 1 Comment


As some of you might remember, a few months ago I wrote a post on prison policy which mentioned the short, troubled life and eventual suicide of Sarah Campbell. What I neglected to mention in that post was that whilst her death was a preventable tragedy, the greater outrage for prison reformers was that it was just one of six suicides to occur at Styal prison in the space of 12 months.

Spooked by the amount of self-harm among women prisoners, the government commissioned Baroness Jean Corston to conduct a review and suggest ways that our criminal justice system might be changed to stop creating more casualties.

For Corston, the fundamental flaw with the penal system is that it was designed by and for men. At the time, this might’ve seemed perfectly logical; even today, women only make up about 5% of the total prison population, so when you’re designing a system to house inmates, your planning is inevitably skewed towards men. But the women in prison often possess very different needs and vulnerabilities: they’re more likely to have been the victims of domestic or sexual abuse, are more likely to be lone parents and are more likely to self-harm.

Corston concluded that today’s prisons are systemically incapable of providing the kinds of help these women need and that all 15 jails should be phased-out within 10 years. In their place should be a series of smaller custodial units which would be closer to an inmate’s home and better equipped to help them with any drug or alcohol addictions, mental or physical health problems they may be harbouring.

But Corston went far further than simply asking for a radical change in the way we incarcerate female offenders; she also critiqued the frequency with which the criminal justice system resorts to imprisonment. The majority of the women in our prisons serve short sentences for non-violent, acquisitive crime; as they pose no danger to the law-abiding majority, there really isn’t any need to lock them up, particularly since nothing positive seems to come out of it. So for those women whose crimes were relatively minor, Corston argued that there should be a greater breadth of non-custodial sentences aimed at offenders repaying their debt to society in a more productive manner.

When it was published, the government was reasonably receptive and promised to look at ways of reducing the female prison population. But a little over two years since the Baroness’ call for change, the Fawcett Society has looked again at the circumstances for women in the criminal justice system and there’s little evidence of substantive change.

At present, the number of women in prison is a little over 4,200 – a 60% increase on ten years ago. Of that number, more than half have been victims of domestic violence in their lives, a third have suffered sexual abuse and a quarter were in care as children. 63% of these inmates serve a fruitless, pointless sentence of 6 months or less, two thirds are mothers of dependent children and 18,000 of those children are separated from their mums each year. Most startlingly, women make up just 5% of the total prison population, but commit half of the total number of incidents of self-harm.

Prison isn’t working. It isn’t working for the inmates or their familes, it’s not working for the victims of crime, it’s not working for a government which is meant to be reducing crime and it’s not working for the taxpayers who have to shell out every year for policies which yield few results. In any other area of governing, seeing the public’s money being wasted in such a way would make the major parties desperate to find alternatives. In the Corston report, we already have an alternative to the self-defeating status quo; all we need now is a government with the political bravery needed to make it a reality. Any takers?

The sinking of the Titans

April 24, 2009 at 8:49 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 7 Comments

I first wrote about the foolishness of Labour’s ‘Titan Prisons’ policy almost a year ago, and have returned to it on several occasions since. Anyone with a passing interest in the state of the British prison system will recognise that many jails – particularly the larger ones – simply aren’t fit for the purpose of ensuring inmates don’t reoffend, and the idea of warehousing 2,500 convicts in the same place looked certain to ratchet-up a reoffending rate which is already unacceptably high. For many of us, building titans would’ve poured kerosene on a problem which the government was already failing to tackle, and so today’s news that the plans have been shelved feels very much like a dodged bullet.

Considering all the words I’ve typed and all the exasperation spent, you’d think I’d be jubilant that the titans have been sunk; alas, as Eric Allison points out, today’s announcement doesn’t easily lend itself to celebration. For one, nobody who considers themselves well-versed in prison policy believes this is a u-turn of principle; rather a reflection of the fiscal constraints which this government (and those to come) now operates under. If they had the money to build these wreckless warehouses, Labour would most certainly have done it, regardless of the near-unanimity from experts that it was a foolish endeavour.

Secondly, the reported alternative of building five new prisons, each with a capacity of 1,500, shows Labour is still committed to its fetish for incarceration and proves that the government wastes far more of its energy concocting new forms of imprisonment than it does expanding, broadening and deepening our efforts towards ensuring those who leave prison don’t go on to commit crimes. This alternative idea might not be as bad as Titans, but it’s certainly a replication of everything that’s wrong with the current consensus.

Above all, the news demonstrates that Labour’s policy-making might have been altered by the credit crunch, but its policy assumptions most certainly haven’t, and most likely won’t until at least the point when it’s out of power. Talk about wasting a good crisis…

Building the argument for prison reform

April 14, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 2 Comments

It’s been nearly two weeks since my last post on the subject, so by now I’m sure you’re all gagging for another riveting instalment of Prison Reform News! By the time I’m done, you’ll probably be wishing I’d stayed on holiday…

To start, today’s report in The Guardian about the government’s failure to rehabilitate offenders underscores three oft-repeated points. The first is that the efforts of charities and third sector bodies towards trying to achieve something in this area are being constrained by two major problems: the prison service is too overstretched and overcrowded for rehabilitation efforts to be effective, and the government has a habit of interfering with any programmes which might prove embarrassing when they’re distorted in the tabloids. One such example, a planned comedy workshop in Whitemoor prison, clearly had potential benefits for developing inmates’ personal & social skills, but it was cancelled solely because Jack Straw thought it’d look bad. So government needs to be a lot braver on that score and, if necessary, just swallow one or two bad headlines every once in a while. I mean, it’s not like they’re going to spoil all the adulation they’re currently basking in, is it?

The second point is that it should again highlight the need to think seriously about ways to incentivise rehabilitation within the prison system. Reducing the level of reoffending should be prioritised as a matter of public safety, and it’s a little odd to note that this is an area where Conservatives are thinking/talking more progressively than Labour; David Cameron has previously made positive noises about creating some kind of league table system, and the Aitken report includes incentivisation as one of its key recommendations.

The last point is the shortest, and, I would hope, most obvious: if you’re failing in your efforts to rehabilitate offenders, you’re not being ‘tough’ on crime – you’re incubating it.

Moving on, and whilst I was on holiday, the government published yet another consultation document on giving prisoners the right to vote. Such has been Labour’s foot-dragging on the issue, I won’t hold out much hope that this will be achieved before the last election (by which point a Tory government will certainly scrap it), and I sympathise with the Prison Reform Trust’s rather weary, grumpy response. But since I’ve done the rights & wrongs of the government’s position to death, I’ll instead pick up on recent comments about the way this campaign has been fought.

In different ways, both Sunder Katwala and Norman Geras identify a real problem among those of us who want to extend the vote to prisoners: our arguments often fall flat to anyone who’s agnostic on the issue. The piece Geras links to is probably the worst I’ve read, but Sunder is equally right to note the respective weaknesses of Juliet Lyons & Johann Hari’s positions. As I’ve commented before, because of the strength in numbers of those who shout the opposing view, there’s a danger that penal reformers direct their arguments only to likeminded friends, and speak/write as if the virtues of their position are self-evident. So when someone asks “why do you want to give prisoners the right to vote?”, the answer which comes back is often only slightly less circular than “because prisoners don’t have the right to vote”.

However, when you try to break out from this circularity and speak of specific benefits to society from extending the franchise, you encounter another set of problems; Sunder is certainly correct to imply that Lyons and Hari’s arguments about how prisoners would engage more with politics – and politicians with prisoners – are overstated and unproveable, and even if those benefits were disproved, both writers would still argue for extending the franchise on principle.

I’m not sure that I’m going to be any more effective at constructing an argument which wins over the doubters, but what I would say is that it must be situated in the context of the current state of the our prison system. Under Labour, our imprisonment rate has become the second highest in Europe and 62% of prisoners go on reoffend, at a cost of over £12 billion. The length of an average sentence is a completely unproductive 3 months, prisons are increasingly being used as a dumping ground for the mentally ill, and there are unacceptable levels of drug use, self-harm and suicides. At the same time, Labour’s only moves towards reform have been concerned with how to incarcerate prisoners more cheaply, not how to effectively reduce reoffending.

The system needs reform, but there will never be any votes in liberalisation whilst the issue is so completely smothered by ‘get tough!’ tubthumping. The most we can be sure of about extending the franchise to prisoners is that it will finally put votes in prison reform, and give those reform groups the chance to claim the democratic mandate which are available to every other political lobby. Beyond that, under habeas corpus, we have the right to challenge the state’s justification for our imprisonment. It seems to me entirely logical that we should then – even if found guilty – be able to challege the conditions under which we are imprisoned. The best way of ensuring that accountability remains the ballot box, and without it, there is no incentive for the state to improve those conditions.

That still might not be an adequate justification for some, and it’s always going to be an uphill struggle to convince people why we should give rights to those who have committed terrible crimes. The reason I keep at it is because I regard the prison system as absolutely crucial towards constructing a serious left (or liberal-left) alternative to the current criminal justice system. When Labour finds itself out of power in a few years time, these will be vitally important discussions to have.

Juliet Lyon on votes for prisoners

April 1, 2009 at 7:00 am | Posted in Prison Reform | 1 Comment

I’ve written about this a few times before, but it bears repeating:

There are few or no votes in prison reform and little interest in the rights and responsibilities of those behind bars. One of the reasons is that prisoners themselves can’t vote.

Five years ago today the European court of human rights ruled that the UK’s blanket ban on prisoners’ voting is unlawful and in violation of Article 3 of the First Protocol of the European convention on human rights.

Since then the government has employed a range of delaying tactics to avoid implementing the ruling. The UK is normally regarded as having a good record in complying with European court decisions, but it seems that successive justice ministers have been preoccupied with political considerations and fear of adverse headlines, rather than fairness or the rule of law.

Disenfranchisement is a relic from punishments of the past dating back to the Forfeiture Act of 1870. It is based on an idea of civic death and the withdrawal of citizenship rights and responsibilities. A far cry from what we would expect from a 21st-century justice system and a modernised prison service. People are sent to prison to lose their liberty not their identity

More here.

NB: I’ll just be dumping links for the rest of this week, and will be away from the internet for all of next week. Normal blogging will resume on around 12th or 13th of March

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.

‘Locked Up Potential’

March 23, 2009 at 9:05 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 4 Comments

It’s not the kind of thing which wins you many friends on your own side, but I’ve tried to make a point of highlighting policy areas where the Conservative Party is starting to think more progressively than the current government. The subject of this reluctant love-bombing has mostly been Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, which has produced some excellent work over the past year, particularly on Early Intervention and the need to bring some blessed humanity into the asylum system. But of all their work so far, this new report into the prison system might just be the best thing the CSJ has published.

The first – and most important – thing this report contributes is its demolition of the well-worn myth that ‘prison works’. Under Labour, our imprisonment rate has become the second highest in Europe and 62% of prisoners go on reoffend, which costs the taxpayer over £12 billion. The length of an average sentence is a completely unproductive 3 months, prisons are increasingly being used as a dumping ground for the mentally ill, and there are unacceptable levels of drug use, self-harm and suicides. At present, the contribution the prison system makes to our social well-being is practically non-existent.

So what do the report’s authors claim needs to be done? Well, the first step is to admit that, yes, we do need to build more prisons, but they also have to be much smaller and rooted in communities. The proposed (and overwhelmingly hated) ‘titan prisons’ should be scrapped and replaced with community prisons & a network of supervised ‘halfway houses’ for those who don’t pose a threat to the public, and for whom withdrawing from society altogether would be entirely detrimental. They also claim that the National Offender Management Service is unfit for purpose, and should be replaced by local prison trusts, run in much the same way as local NHS trusts.

For the first time, rehabilitation would be incentivised, and prison & rehabilitation officers – as well as the organisations they work for – would receive bonuses for the number of inmates they manage to get back on the straight ‘n narrow. On top of that, the rehab programmes themselves would be radically overhauled, and tailored towards an inmate’s specific circumstances; people end up in prison for a wide variety of reasons, and if you’re able to identify & resolve the problems which led them there, you stand a much better chance of reducing the risk they pose once released.

Other proposals include mentoring schemes for young prisoners on short sentences; improving resettlement support so that inmates aren’t as likely to end up on the streets once released; overhauling prisoner education so that those who enter jails without skills or qualifications at least re-enter society with something they can sell on the jobs market. Finally, the report points to the importance of extending restorative justice and making reparations to the victims of crime a much greater part of an offender’s rehabilitation. This is all very, very good stuff.

There’s a big difference, of course, between a report chaired by a former Tory minister for a think tank headed by a former Tory leader, and the current thinking on the Conservative Party’s front bench; whilst Cameron has made a few pleasing noises about scrapping Titans and incentivising rehabilitation, it remains to be seen whether the Tories can embrace this reformist agenda, or whether they’ll fall back on the tired old methods of the past which Labour has proved to be a failure. But if the proposals contained in this report can at least steer the conversation in a more progressive direction by offering real & achievable ideas for change, then that’s not something to be taken lightly.

As it happens, I quite like the slogan ‘prison works’; it’s a fine ideal that we should aspire to and work towards. But it’s also a slogan which has no bearing on the present situation, and unless we can begin to make prison work, we’ll only succeed in wasting yet more money and lives and opportunities doing that which has failed time and again. That two lifelong Tories can reach that conclusion before a Labour government says an awful lot.

Prisons on the cheap

February 21, 2009 at 10:12 pm | Posted in British Politics, Prison Reform | 6 Comments

I suppose there have been worse custodians in its history, but if you were to rank government ministers of the past ten years according to the harm they’ve inflicted on the prison service, Jack Straw would come out on top. Since assuming the role just two years ago, Straw has overseen dangerous overcrowding, planned to solve it by building a series of megajails which every reform group in the country has condemned, and then attacked his critics with the old lie that they don’t care about victims of crime.

He’s refused to give prisoners the right to vote despite being legally obliged to do so, he’s produced policies of pure populist junk (having the public vote on a criminal’s punishment or publicly humiliating offenders) and has run his department like a pandering control freak, eager to interfere in any aspect of the criminal justice system which the Tory tabloids are upset about. But perhaps the most damaging legacy of Straw’s time as Justice Minister has been his continuation of the government’s mad delusion that the prison service can be run on the cheap.

This week, the 25,000 members who make up the Prison Officers Association rejected a new pay deal from the government. Under Labour’s proposed ‘workforce modernisation programme’, existing prison officers would’ve recieved a 4.75% pay rise, but the plans would’ve also created a new tier of prison officers, who would’ve been paid less and given fewer responsibilities. The POA’s members rejected the government’s offer because at a time when they are already overstretched and undervalued, they could not accede to a plan which would open the door for the deskilling of a profession where skilled, experienced officers are essential. Prisons would become more dangerous, prisoners would be less safe and the public would be exposed to greater risk when they’re eventually released.

Responding to the prison officers’ discontent, Straw threatened to make them irrelevant by giving a greater role in managing prisons to the private sector, where officers are already paid less, have fewer responsibilities and less experience, leading to pretty ugly consequences. In this pay deal, as with the policy of creating Titan prisons and the part privatisation of the system, the government’s guiding principle seems to be ‘how cheaply can prisons be run?’, when it should be asking ‘how can they be run most effectively?’

Prisons should be expensive to run. They should be full of well-trained and well-paid wardens, medics, mental health professionals and educators. They should be able to stop the smuggling of drugs, reduce cases of suicide and self-harm and generally give prisoners enough opportunities to rehabilitate themselves that they have no excuse for returning to the crime which put them in jail in the first place. By rejecting this pay deal, the Prison Officer’s Association are sticking to that principle; it’s just a shame that they seem to be fighting a losing battle.

David Howarth on the criminal justice system

February 13, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime, New Labour, Prison Reform | 3 Comments

Give this man a medal:

There is a crisis in the criminal justice system of staggering proportions. The prison population is at a record high, and is eating up £ billions in public expenditure. 70% of prisoners suffer from two or more recognised mental illnesses. Vast numbers are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Prisoners are shunted around the country at an alarming rate in a desperate attempt to find places. Constructive activities for prisoners are becoming increasingly difficult to complete. Thousands of prisoners are threatened with the Catch 22 that they have been sentenced to an indeterminate sentence so that they can only obtain release if they complete certain courses, but no such courses exist at the prisons where they find themselves. Meanwhile, community sentences are underfunded and non-custodial sentences we know are effective in reducing re-offending, such as restorative justice, are left on the shelf.

We need to stick to what works to reduce reoffending, and, within what works, we need to concentrate effort on offenders who are likely to commit the most new crimes and the most serious new crimes. The government and the Tories are obsessed with placating the Daily Mail with talk of punishment and deterrence, but that approach, because it fails to concentrate on what really works to reduce reoffending, effectively causes more crime. If existing resources were moved from programmes that do not work – such as short-term prison sentences that have vast failure rates – to programmes that do, such as restorative justice and drug and alcohol treatment, the crime rate would be lower. By refusing to follow such an approach, and instead indulging their more atavistic tendencies, both Labour and the Tories are permitting more crime than should be happening. That is why they are the pro-crime parties.

There are a number of things about this piece which make me happy. In 2005, Howarth was the recipient of my first ever vote, and whilst it was nice enough just to see the back of the rather useless Anne Campbell, that’s since been superceded by an admiration for how well he articulates the causes of civil liberties and social justice.

Second, what’s striking about the section above is not just that he understands the myriad wrongs in the criminal justice system, but that he’s able to frame them within a ‘tough on crime’ narrative which contends that Labour is actually contributing to crime, not tackling it. Whilst he only briefly alludes to the solutions, the suggestion that his Ministry of Justice would be more nuanced, pragmatic and results-based is more than enough to earn him a spot in my fantasy cabinet.

Lastly, it’s heartening to see him talking about this issue within the broader context of civil liberties and constitutional reform. One of the frustrations I have with the ‘civil liberties movement’ is that its focus is overwhelmingly on the restrictions Labour has imposed (or would like to impose) on those whom the law presumes to be innocent (42 day detention, DNA databases, ID cards etc etc). Those policies obviously need smart & vigorous opposition, but it often seems like there’s then little room for discussion about safeguarding the rights of people the law knows to be guilty. I’ve always thought that people who argue for reform of our criminal justice system were natural bedfellows for civil libertarians, but that’s not a sense I get when traipsing around the blogosphere. In this piece, Howarth ties the two together, and for that he deserves great credit.

A multitude of casualties

February 4, 2009 at 10:41 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 2 Comments

It could be a scene from any town or city in the country. In 2002, Amrit Bhandari was walking through the centre of Chester when two women asked him for money. He refused, but the beggars persisted and one threatened to accuse the 72-year-old of rape if he didn’t hand something over. They never assaulted him, but Mr Bhandari was so panicked by the harassment that he suffered a heart attack. Rather than try to help the man they had literally frightened to death, the girls took his briefcase and wallet, and fled.

One of the girls sentenced for the manslaughter of Amrit Bhandri was Sarah Campbell. Sarah’s short life was one filled with horrors few of us can imagine; sexually abused throughout her childhood and raped at 15, she became clinically depressed, sought escape through drugs and, by the age of 16, was enslaved by an addiction to heroin. Just one day into her three year sentence, Sarah swallowed a lethal quantity of prescription drugs. She was eighteen years old.

Insistent that her daughter’s death could – should – have been prevented, Sarah’s mother Pauline became one of the country’s most tireless crusaders for prison reform. Each time another young girl killed herself in custody, Pauline could be found outside the prison gates protesting the failure of care and often getting arrested for her trouble. But the energy she put into her cause couldn’t fill the void left by Sarah’s death; last year, she was found dead at her daughter’s graveside. The coroner returned a verdict of suicide.

The reason I recount these stories is because one of the most enduring lies told about those of us who urge reform of the prison system is that we’re soft on criminals and ignorant of the victims. On the contrary, there’s no doubt that Sarah Campbell and her accomplice should’ve been punished for their crime, either with incarceration or drug treatment. But what the ‘lock ’em up’ brigade too easily ignores is the way our prison system creates its own victims, hardens criminals and only extends the cycle of misery which leads many to prison in the first place.

This week, the Prison Reform Trust announced that thousands of inmates who should be receiving specialised mental health or social care are instead being ‘diverted’ into prisons which can’t provide the help they need. In the report, the trust claims that because of a chronically overstretched system, many courts are dumping the mentally ill in prisons, and that only one in six of these provides support that could be classed as ‘adequate’ or better. They cite cases where the self-harming, suicidal or severely handicapped are kept in segregation because prison bosses simply don’t know what to do with them, and note a lack of co-ordination between the various agencies involved.

On top of this, last week the Chief Inspector of Prisons issued her own severe warning over the state of our jails. In her annual report, Dame Owers spoke of growing concerns about overcrowding, prisoner health, problems with drug & alcohol abuse and inadequate provision of those training & support services which are essential for rehabilitation. Lastly, she warned that this recession will only make things worse for prisoners’ employment & resettlement prospects, which will greatly increase the likelihood of reoffending. If our prisons are exhibiting signs of systemic failure now, just think what they’ll be like when unemployment passes three million, and when muggings, thefts & burglaries start to increase. At some point the dam is going to burst.

Prison should always be a place for punishment, but because the vast majority of offenders are one day released, it also needs to be a place where we can ensure that they’ll never come back. By most objective measurements, our prison system is failing to meet that standard, and until the government can construct a policy out of something more than a lust for incarceration, there’ll be more Amrit Bhandaris, more Sarah Campbells and more Pauline Campbells in the months and years to come.

Prison wisdom

December 16, 2008 at 10:19 am | Posted in Prison Reform | Leave a comment

Since many of my posts on this topic tend to focus on all that’s wrong with our penal system, I thought I’d share a more positive, humerous story about what happens when you give inmates the chance to read, think and talk about poetry, philosophy and politics:

Is it a good idea to talk about revolution in prison? Where better? Although we do have CCTV in the classrooms now. I thought that Blake and the French revolution might be a good way in. Blake never fails to grip: Tyger, London, The Sick Rose.

“Everything,” says Ian, “contains the seeds of its own destruction.”

“He wrote Jerusalem,” says Richard and we get into the legend of Christ visiting England.”It’s stupid,” says Richard.

“It’s not. Why shouldn’t he visit England.”

“Oh, yeah,” says Richard. “Imagine him at immigration. Nationality? Palestinian. Reason for visit? Building Jerusalem. Profession? Son of God. Think they’d let him in? They’d jog him on straight away.”

He’s got a point. More here.

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