John Benyon, Professor of Political Studies, University of Leicester:
The number of people being locked up in England and Wales is ‘astonishing’. That is the view of Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke who said he was ‘amazed’ at the increase since he was Home Secretary in 1993. Then the prison population was 44,566 but by November 2010 it had risen by 92 per cent to 85,454. Mr Clarke said that if such a prediction had been made in 1993 he would have dismissed it as ‘ridiculous’.
The prison population rate places England and Wales one of the very highest in western Europe with 155 people per 100,000 in prison compared with 96 in France, 88 in Germany and 71 in Denmark. The rise in the prison population over 50 years has been dramatic from 26,198 in 1960, which was a rate of some 52 per 100,000 people, to 42,264 in 1980 (83 per 100,000), to 61,114 in 1997 (120 per 100,000) when New Labour came into power, to the level at the end of 2010 of 85,454 (155 per 100,000 people).
One factor in the debate about the incarceration rate is the sheer volume of legislation on crime under New Labour and the consequent huge rise in the number of criminal offences on the statute book. In 2003 alone there were six criminal justice statutes, most notably the Criminal Justice Act which led to longer prison sentences. It was reported that an extraordinary 3,600 new criminal offences were created during Labour’s time in office. In July 2009 Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, pleaded ‘can we possibly have less legislation, particularly in the field of criminal justice’.
There are at least three main reasons against the huge and ever-rising prison population – financial, prudential and moral. In terms of cost, the relentless rise in the prison population is simply not affordable or justifiable, especially in an age of austerity. It reportedly costs up to £45,000 a year to keep each prisoner in jail. Even more strikingly, it was reported last year that over 2,000 children aged 10 to 17 were being held in prison with each one costing some £100,000 a year – over three times the cost of sending a child to Eton.
The evidence shows it is not prudent to send so many young men and women to prison rather than finding more effective forms of punishment and rehabilitation. The new Coalition government has announced a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ with the aim of deterring crime, protecting the public, punishing offenders and cutting reoffending. Government figures show that around one half of all released prisoners reoffend within one year, and the reoffending rate is 61 per cent for those released after serving a short sentence of under one year.
In 2010 the Home Secretary Theresa May said sanctions ‘should be rehabilitating and restorative rather than criminalising and coercive’. The government’s proposals include more work in prison, more demanding community punishment, tougher curfew requirements, greater use of restorative justice and increased reparations to victims, improved youth justice, and introducing payment-by-results for independent providers.
There are many moral arguments against imprisoning so many people. First a significant proportion of people who are sent to prison are suffering from mental health problems. The figure has been put as high as 90 per cent. Some judges have said that the prison system is being used as a dustbin for people who need treatment. Surely there is a moral imperative to try to divert mentally ill and disordered offenders away from the prison system if at all possible and to try to help them to get better.
Another issue concerns the use of indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection (IPPs). This form of sentencing came into effect in 2005 and the object is to keep the offenders in prison until they can show they were not a threat to the public. Each IPP prisoner receives a minimum tariff but the great majority remain in prison long after they have served it. One reason is that IPP prisoners are obliged to complete certain offender behaviour courses before being considered for release by the Parole Board but many prisons do not offer such courses. The IPP was described by Anne Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons, as ‘a worked example of how not to legislate’. In 2010 there were 6,130 people serving IPP sentences with 2,850 being held well beyond their tariff point. Only 94 IPP prisoners had ever been let out of prison.
The core of the moral argument is whether it is right to lock up so many vulnerable and frightened young men and women in conditions where they are liable to be lonely, bullied and badly treated. Self-harm has been described as an epidemic in Britain’s prisons, and illnesses often go untreated. Drugs are available and many people come out of prison with a drugs problem they developed in there. Many prisoners are locked up most of the day with nothing to do and some come out of prison much harder and more alienated than when they went in.
The former Chief Inspector of Prisons, General Lord Ramsbotham, wrote last year that New Labour had left the prison and probation service ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘in crisis’. Lord Ramsbotham accused Labour of ‘government on the back of a fag packet’ and said that ‘the prisons are full of people who should not be in there for a variety of reasons’.
Prisons are horrible places and yet some seem to glory in locking more people up in them. An MP was recently heard on Radio Four saying ‘I want to see more people put in prison’. Why on earth? I don’t know if he was a Conservative or a Labour MP – but then Labour seems to have become more right-wing on these issues than the Conservatives.
When Labour came into office in 1997 the prison population in England and Wales was 61,114 and when it left in May 2010 it had increased to 85,009 – a rise of 39 per cent. A succession of poor and weak Labour home secretaries, and then justice secretaries, kowtowed to the tabloid press and pursued a populist ‘lock ’em up’ approach to penal policy. It was perhaps no wonder that in June 2010 Mr Jack Straw, who served as both Home Secretary and Justice Secretary in the Labour administration, chose the Daily Mail to attack the new government’s policies on prisons and punishment. He accused the Coalition of being ‘hand-wringers’ on crime and seemed to boast about the increase in the prison population under the Labour government.
What is wrong with us in this country that we incarcerate so many more of our fellow beings than in our European neighbours? Are we more constitutionally criminal or are we just more cruel and callous? Of course some people will always need to be locked up for reasons of public safety, but there are better ways to punish and rehabilitate most people who transgress the law. The time has come to reverse the ever-rising prison population.
John Benyon AcSS FRSA is Professor of Political Studies at the University of Leicester and Director of Research in the Leicester Institute of Lifelong Learning. He was Director of the Scarman Centre for the Study of Public Order from 1987 until 1999.
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