Time to stop locking ever more people up

John Benyon, Professor of Political Studies, University of Leicester:

John BenyonThe 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.


  1. Dr Jacqui Briggs
    Posted 20/03/2011 at 16:58 | Permalink

    Professor John Benyon provides a clear exposé of the myopic approach to penal policy adopted by this country since new Labour came to power and beyond. His measured, well-researched and clearly argued piece, furnishes unequivocal financial, prudential and moral arguments as to why the current trend needs halting. The cross-national comparisons too should surely lead our policy makers to question why we are apparently so different from our European neighbours. I think that we need to focus more upon crime prevention, particularly the area of youth crime prevention, and to invest more resources into helping those, who may be going down the wrong path, to avoid a life a crime. How ironic then that, in these times of austerity, council budget cuts are impacting heavily upon youth crime prevention teams!
    Local authorities are now faced with one single grant and find themselves more likely to invest their preventative money into the Sure Start Model, aimed at giving disadvantaged children and young parents the best start in life, rather than addressing the needs of disadvantaged children and young people – essentially the raison d’être of youth crime prevention funding. From 2005 onwards, the Youth Justice Board offered all youth offending services prevention grants. The youth offending services work facilitated by these finances impacted significantly on first time entries into the criminal justice system. The question remains, therefore, is it the responsibility of schools, education and children’s services to prevent offending or should it lie within the specialist arena of youth justice? One of the single biggest risk factors for any child entering the criminal justice system is exclusion from school. However, the Coalition Government is actively encouraging a more authoritarian stance by head teachers – with a greater legal framework for exclusion likely to be included in the next set of education bills and documents to go before Parliament in the autumn. If this is so, we will start to see, from the next academic year, a general creep upwards of those first time entries into the criminal justice system as frontline youth crime prevention workers are axed from local authority services and head teachers build up the momentum to increase exclusions. In my opinion, the only glimmer of hope is the progressive move by the Coalition Government to a more restorative approach to criminal justice in the form of face-to-face meetings, combining victim and perpetrator. Early findings, from a recent research project, highlight a percentage return in the high 50s (of those who committed a crime not proceeding to commit further crimes). This compares much more favourably, effectively and financially against incarceration and high-end supervision orders where the percentage reoffending rates are locked into the low 80s. Our policy makers would do well to take heed of Professor Benyon’s analysis.


  2. DP
    Posted 17/03/2011 at 17:03 | Permalink

    An excellent article by Professor Benyon that illustrates the fallacy of basing government policy on tabloid headlines rather than evidence of real-world effectiveness. The ‘law-abiding people’ referenced in some of these comments are paying a fortune for a discredited system that serves only to increase the likelihood of criminal acts being committed.


  3. AR
    Posted 17/03/2011 at 09:55 | Permalink

    An interesting and informative piece that demonstrates that authoritarian instincts on crime and punishment of successive UK governments have done Britain few favours socially and economically.

    Some of the prevailing pressure to incarcerate is understandable. It may be natural for the victims of crime (and the fear of crime) to demand ever-harsher sentences in order to deter and punish, however we know that deterrence seldom works (criminals almost never think about getting caught) and punishment without rehabilitation is counter-productive. What Britain needs in the 21st century is a government that can, where appropriate, resist prevailing pressure from the media and public opinion in order to set effective and reasonable criminal justice policies.

    Congratulations to all concerned for the publication of an important starting point for a contemporary debate about social policy and politics. The next stage should be an informed discussion of viable – and effective – alternatives to imprisonment for many crimes.


  4. David
    Posted 17/03/2011 at 08:54 | Permalink

    You have to admit that Prof Benyon makes a convincing case. The figures are quite alarming, particularly when compared to other European countries. Clearly there is another way! Now that the issue has been so starkly raised on this forum,let’s hope that others pick it up and we can start to change things.


  5. Chris Pattison
    Posted 16/03/2011 at 17:53 | Permalink

    A reasoned debate on UK prison policy is well overdue. The rise in the numbers of crimes punishable by incarceration has been matched by severe reductions in preventative services that could keep people out of prisons. And we see the same mistakes being repeated now. Up and down the country councils are having to make deep cuts to their budgets and, sadly, services such as youth work, extra-curricular training and sports and leisure activities aimed as alternative activities to those at risk of offending are all being slashed away. Likewise local and national grant awards to the voluntary sector to help prevent criminal behaviour, rehabilitate offenders or to help those such as drug users or those with mental health issues (and who are both likely to be caught up in ‘criminal’ behaviour) have been dwindling away for over a decade. The plight of the mentally ill is particularly nasty. People unable to control their emotions, whose behaviour gets out of control even with medication, all to often find the courts imprisoning them either because their is no other recourse for the courts or because the medical treatment they need is either unavaliable locally or not covered by national policies. The blame for this is not one borne solely by the last Labour Government – since the closing of the so called ‘mental hospitals’ and other mental health and psychiatric institutions by the previous Tory government no proper, decent or humanly respectable alternative has been delivered. One shudders at the very memory of Care in the Community. Once in prison these vulnerable individuals face regimes of bullying, assault and other behaviour which is often far worse than the crimes for which those individuals were imprisoned but which, bizarrely, all too often goes unpunished or not confronted by prison authorities. Depriving people of their liberty is one thing, treating them inhumanely or animalistically once there is not the mark of a progressive, developed and democratic society. Indeed European countries with a more sophisticated and balanced view of what behaviours can be rectified within a community rather than simply resort to locking people away achieve far more in turning offenders away from crime and in leading them back from mental illness. The fact is that in this country we have all too readily taken the ‘lock ’em up, out of sight, out of mind approach’. Or to put it more crudely, the cheaper option. Yes, prison is often cheaper than proper health care or effective prevention and community safety – cheaper in cost and intellectualism. And finally, spare a thought for women in all this. The privations and abuses they face in prison are often worse than those faced by men, especially those who are mothers of children or who are unfortunate enough to find themselves pregnant when imprisoned. The separation from their child after birth is a mental torture in itself. In Wales there is no prison at all for women denying those Welsh women of contact with their family and children and so making rehabilitation and mental balance even harder to achieve. Sadly the coalition government speaks much but offers little on the subject. They may complain about the numbers in prison but they will not put up the money to put in place the prevention initiatives and the health regimes needed by effective alternatives. One can only hope that debates such as these by reasoned and concerned individuals (rather than rants of bigots) will start to persuade the political elite that there are alternatives and that in the long-run the outcomes will be of greater and less costly benefit than the short-term actions of mass imprisonment and all the social ills they are storing up for ourselves.


  6. Edward
    Posted 16/03/2011 at 11:56 | Permalink

    My original comment doesn’t make sense now! I wish comments went at the bottom instead of the top, but hey ho…

    Anyway, as you can see there will always be plenty of people who think that harsh punishments and no compassion should be the main planks of criminal justice. They happily ignore the fact that even the harshest regimes in the world have prisons full of people (Saudi Arabia? Singapore?) and that people will commit crimes even when the ultimate punishment is available (USA, China…). And yet countries with a more enlightened system do not have the highest crime rates.

    People who think that prison is a holiday camp should actually be forced to stay in them for a few days. They have invariably never seen the inside of one nor know anyone who has but believe any tosh the Daily Mail or Daily Express tells them.

    Sadly politicians of all hues have all too often tried to please these people rather than those who actually have to work within the system.

    The fact is that more prisoners leaving harsher prisons will make our lives less safe in the long run. And those who support that will have that on their conscience.


    Thomas Reply:

    an excellent comment, especially with regards to the amount of people who seemt to think prison is an enjoyable experience just because some of the “red-tops” and others make that claim!


  7. Helena
    Posted 16/03/2011 at 11:54 | Permalink

    I chaired my local Safer Neighbourhood panel in Camden for many years. What was clear was that not enough was being done to stop young people engaging in crime in the first place and, in those cases where the Council did try to intervene and help the parents manage their children, communication across the different public bodies that had an interest in the child was very poor. To my surprise, the schools never seemed to be consulted or involved in any decisions about what could be done to help address the children’s problematic behaviour, yet clearly truancy and illiteracy are common traits of youth offenders. The other problem was that local residents – those affected by antisocial behaviour and crime – were never informed about what actions were being taken by the authorities to try to address the behaviour of those young people known to be causing problems on their estate. As a result anger and resentment grew. I believe this sense of having no control or ability to influence a situation fosters the belief that locking people up is the only way to protect your area from crime and anti-social behaviour.


  8. Peter
    Posted 16/03/2011 at 10:32 | Permalink

    How refreshing to read a piece that paints an accurate picture of the UK prison system, and asks the right questions. The mental health of prisoners is an issue that cannot be ignored or disputed. It is hard to accept that anyone would truly believe that prisoners have a ‘cushy’ deal inside.


  9. efgd
    Posted 15/03/2011 at 14:11 | Permalink

    How many would be deemed ‘criminal’ if certain things were decriminalised?
    Drugs and prostitution for instance.


  10. Edward
    Posted 14/03/2011 at 18:12 | Permalink

    “What is wrong with us in this country that we incarcerate so many more of our fellow beings than in our European neighbours? ”

    Sadly, I think the answer to this question can be seen in the two comments above.


  11. Posted 14/03/2011 at 17:13 | Permalink

    Professor Benyon is to be congratulated on his remarks. It is nothing short of scandalous that our prisons bulge at the seams. The cost in human terms for many of those inappropriately incarcerated as well as the opportunity costs to the general population in terms of much higher taxes/wasteful public expenditure is simply unsustainable. Let me be clear: prison works but only for some people; for all too many of those committed to jail, the effect is merely to ignore the underlying mental condition of the individual concerned, frequently serving to compound their problems, not to mention providing an excellent training ground in which to nurture recidivism. At a fraction of the cost, there are much cheaper and, more importantly, more effective methods of tackling endemic crime among repeat offenders, punishing where punishment is due but crucially affording genuine opportunities for rehabilitation, while addressing the very real underlying mental health and social factors at the root of so much anti-social and criminal activity.


    stephen grady Reply:

    professor nobody; most of our prisons are full because of 2 reasons. 1 to many people break the law . 2 cheaper to live in prison with my 3 meals a days,playstation ,tv,radio ect. ill just carry on me 5 nights work. just to pay me bills.


  12. Danielle Benyon-Payne
    Posted 14/03/2011 at 16:02 | Permalink

    A fact that cannot be disputed is the amount of people within our prisons who suffer from severe mental health problems, such as personality disorders. Locking them up for a certain amount of time, then releasing them back into society having undergone no treatment whatsoever – inevitably, therefore, these people will continue to perpetrate their crimes. Surely more centres to treat the mentally unwell, rather than throwing them into prison, would be beneficial? I don’t think this can be accused of being a soft approach, but rather a sensible one with better long-term advantages to the perpetrator and society. I am sure many of the people in prison who do suffer some kind of mental health problem, as the article states 90% do, do want the opportunity to live a normal life rather than commit crime.


  13. Stephen Graham
    Posted 14/03/2011 at 14:13 | Permalink

    With respect,stop listening to do-gooders,the first priority should be to protect law abiding people.Softness encourages crime,take offenders out of society by placing them in strict regimes that they don’t think are a piece of cake,after their (unpaid hard working) sentence is served place them in rehabilitation centres where they learn of the suffering they cause.NOTHING else will work.


    stephen grady Reply:

    totally agree m8.


    Robert Reply:

    Did either of you (if you really are two people) actually read the article or just the heading? Your comments suggest not.


  14. Mike Roberts
    Posted 14/03/2011 at 13:11 | Permalink

    A very logical statement of the current sentencing rules. But absolutley no concrete proposals for dealing with people who have no compunction whatsoever about living off those people in society who work hard or have worked hard in the case of the elderly. In the main these people have no desire to make a contribution to society, no matter how big the politicians try to make it, and simply pass on their social identity and ideals to the poor children that they lumber the rest of us with. It seems to be a self perpetuating problem that no one has a solution for. At least by keeping them locked up we can protect the innocent and stop them from breeding more delinquents for th future.


    Robert Reply:

    How do we make these people feel they should make a contribution by locking them up and treating them like animals? Surely this has the opposite effect? When they leave prison (and surely you’re not saying that anyone guilty of any crime should be locked up forever?) they will have even less desire to engage in “civil” society.


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