Prison: Labour’s low ambitions

June 8, 2008 at 9:16 pm | Posted in British Politics, Drugs, New Labour, Prison Reform | 3 Comments
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Wandsworth prison by Flickr user bargebaggers (Creative Commons)

You’ll have to forgive my wooly-mindedness, but I’d always assumed that prison should be for two types of people: the murders, molesters and rapists whose acts of violence renders them unfit to live in a free society, and the muggers, thieves and fraudsters who come into prison encumbered by undereducation, drug addiction, and psychiatric disorders. Sure, I’d always known that there’s very little you can do about the psycho brigade – just give ’em enough bread and water to keep living until the callous little hearts cease beating – but I’d always naively assumed there was great potential to rehabilitate those in the latter group.

Alas, for all the government might grudgingly share this belief and boasts ‘get tough’ rhetoric on practically every aspect of public life, it still hasn’t found the resolve in all its 11 misspent years to truly ‘get tough’ on the causes of crime. We’ve seen prison populations rise to eye-watering levels, seen suicides and self-harming rise accordingly and seen the reoffending rate remain defiantly high, whilst all the while our venal right-wing press insist on misleading the country into believing that inmates enjoy a ‘cushy life‘.

So when todays Observer reports on the extraordiary scale of the drug problems in our nation’s prisons, the stock response isn’t to get angry or depressed or even feel anything at all; merely to sigh and turn the page.

But if there was ever an aspect of government policy where we needed someone to ‘turn the page’, it’s this one. Hussain Djemil, a drug addict and ex-inmate who has since become an expert on the myriad crises in the prison system, publishes a report through the Centre for Policy Studies tomorrow. Here is a heavily-abridged and thoroughly depressing summary of his allegations and those uncovered by the Observer:

  1. “Drugs are widespread in British prisons, undermining any attempt to clean up prisoners from pre-existing addictions, greatly increasing the chances of recidivism and corrupting staff.”
  2. There have been occasions when approaching 100 per cent of the prisoners in Cornton Vale [a women’s prison in Stirling] have a drug problem
  3. Even many ‘drug-free’ prison wings – supposed sanctuaries for inmates to escape drugs – are now beset with dealing.
  4. “In a survey of 20 category B and C prisons conducted for The Observer last week, the probation union, Napo, was told that inmates belonging to organised gangs were controlling the distribution of drugs both inside and outside their jails.”
  5. “The Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca) estimates that about 30 major drug dealers continue to control distribution networks across the UK from within the confines of their cells.”
  6. “With the new-found desire to control the drugs trade in Britain’s prisons come fears that weapons are being smuggled in to mete out punishments to those who can’t pay their drug debts. Last Christmas the segregation cells at Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire were full as prisoners sought refuge from dealers to whom they owed money.”
  7. The methods used to smuggle drugs into jails can be as crude as throwing them over prison walls and mailing them into prisoners, or as sinister as drug dealers paying-off prison guards to turn a blind eye to dealing.
  8. “The use of mandatory drug testing is actually encouraging greater use of class A drugs in prison. This is because prisoners being treated for heroin addiction on a detoxification programme using either methadone or its more expensive alternative, Subutex, can blame any positive result on the substitute drug.”
  9. “In 1997 just under 14,000 prisoners were on detoxification programmes. Today the number is over 51,000.”
  10. “Studies show that addicted prisoners will go on to commit further crimes to fuel their habits, which in turn fuels reoffending rates and leads to offenders being recycled through the system, costing the taxpayer billions of pounds.”

It’s an awful state of affairs, and unless the influx of drugs and the problems associated with addiction can be eradicated, there’s little point in trying to invest in more comprehensive rehabilitation programmes. But help is on the way, right? Aren’t we about to be blessed with some shiny new superprisons to incarcerate these dosed-up evil-doers? Trust me, you don’t want to go there:

The new generation of titan “superprisons” are being designed to be overcrowded from the start, the Justice Ministry admitted yesterday. Prison service officials are already looking for a minimum 50-acre brownfield site in the Greater London area to build the first titan jail. But when it opens in 2012 it will only have 2,100 places for its 2,500 inmates. A consultation paper published by the justice secretary, Jack Straw, said yesterday the sites for the four- or five-storey titans should be suitable for an initial development providing at least 2,100 uncrowded places with the capacity to hold up to 2,500 prisoners “through planned overcrowding“. (emphasis mine)

Well, that’s just brilliant. The deluded plebs among us have long assumed that overcrowding was a Bad Thing. We’ve argued that the more crowded a prison becomes, the harder it is to control. We’ve argued that prisoners are at greater risk of violence, self-harm and suicides, that drugs are more difficult to eradicate, that prisoners’ rehabilitation just wouldn’t happen and that an already overworked, understaffed and underpaid prison service would suffer from even higher staff turnover and demoralisation. We’ve argued that if the government wanted to stop such Bad Things from happening, they’d have to cut overcrowding.

But the only reason overcrowding worries this government is because it limits their ability to lock more people up, and since these new megajails will be able to imprison 2,100 each, they’ve got more room than ever to excercise their fetish for incarceration. When these prisons inevitably reach their capacity, Labour’s policy of ‘planned overcrowding’ will mean they can squeeze criminals in more efficiently than ever. And when even the megajails can’t take any more inmates, they’ll just build more of ’em.

In almost every substantive way, Labour has abandoned its pledge to tackle the causes of crime, and both our society and our economy will be paying the price for years to come.

Image of Wandsworth Prison by Flickr user bargebaggers (Creative Commons)


Prison & its discontents

April 1, 2008 at 8:44 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 1 Comment
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At The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan stand-in Patrick weighs-in on Ezra Klein’s important article on rape in American prisons:

Convention dictates that no politician can afford to take on prisoners as a constituency. Politically prisoners are high risk and offer low returns. Release one inmate who relapses and a politician is immediately branded as soft on crime. The votes an elected official loses for implementing sensible prison reform aren’t offset by the votes of prisoners or ex-felons since those groups are often denied the right to vote. There are good reasons for prison reform, some of which Ezra discusses, but rarely are the political obstacles to this reform openly acknowledged. Those most affected by the dysfunctional prison system are largely unable to exert the political pressure necessary to fix it. Prison rape is allowed to go on partially because of the passive acceptance Ezra notes and partially because of the political disenfranchisement of the abused.

I think much of this is also applicable to the situation in Britain, where we lock up more of our citizens than anywhere in the EU. When former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy stood up in support of giving prisoners the right to vote (we’re currently in the unflattering company of eight European countries – including such stable liberal democracies as Hungary, Estonia & Armenia – that deny all prisoners this right), he was howled out of hustings by a right-wing press unable to portray inmates as anything other than bloodthirsty psychopaths who, if released, would make it their mission to inflict misery on your nearest & dearest. But the fact remains that without a right to vote, prisoners have no say in the system that governs them.

But who gives fuck, right? my right-wing devil whispers to me, these people lost the right to be citizens like you and I the moment they committed crime. Perhaps that’s true, but it’s also true that the way we treat our prisoners has a definite impact on how they behave when they are released. As much as some of us might wish to lock all criminals up for life, the reality is that only the most violent, most dangerous offenders stay incarcerated for that long, and they are a tiny minority of the prison population. Like it or not, the rest of them will one day be released. And if they’ve been released without help finding accomodation or a new job, without help with whatever mental illnesses they may harbour, whatever drug or behavioural problems they may be battling, whatever skills or education they lack to find employment, they are much more likely to offend again. And if they offend again, that means they’re a threat to the law-abiding members of our society. This is why a prison policy based on Rambo posturing and tabloid pleasing will never be tough on the causes of crime. This is why a liberal, reformist approach to the prison service is the only option left for a system that’s running out of ideas. And, if you’re running out of ideas about why we should change our prison policy, this is the politically expedient answer you should give: preventing prisoners from going back to a life of crime is in the interests of the middle classes.

After all, these days, that’s the only consideration, right?

Photo: Stangeways Prison in Manchester, taken by Flickr user dullhunk (Creative Commons)

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