More porridge is hard to swallow

December 10, 2004

The average inmate is poorly educated and probably has drug or mental-health problems. Andrew Coyle asks whether prison is the best answer

In the past few days David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has come under scrutiny as never before. Unfortunately, this has been as a result of events in his private life rather than because of his role as a no-nonsense law and order advocate. Once again, security was placed at the heart of the Queen's speech and hence Labour's re-election strategy. The aim seems to have been to take the wind out of the Conservatives' sails. As Home Secretary, their leader Michael Howard was known for his get-tough stance and in a newspaper article in the summer he reminded us of his simple belief that "prison works", repeating his commitment to increase the prison population. More people in prison? Haven't both political parties been doing just that for the past ten years?

When Howard became Home Secretary in 1993 the prison population in England and Wales stood at 44,600. When he left office in 1997 it had risen to 61,000. The current Government has continued down this path and the prison population is now 75,000.

Until recently, the predictions coming out of the Home Office were for a prison population of 93,000 by 2009. Yet, despite the security rhetoric in recent days, the Government has proposed a series of initiatives, such as an extension of electronic tagging, that are aimed at reducing the increase to a figure of 80,000 by 2009. It seems these were provoked by Treasury concerns about increasing public expenditure for very little return.

The Treasury had spotted that across Western Europe it is not possible to establish any link between crime rates and imprisonment rates. Rates of imprisonment are usually quoted per 100,000 of the general population. On that basis, England and Wales have a rate of 142 prisoners. This is exceeded only by Spain, which has a rate of 144. The rate in Germany is 96, in France 95, in Ireland 97, in Denmark 72 and in Norway 64.

Translating that into numbers, France has a prison population of 18,000 fewer than England and Wales, despite having a higher overall population.

But why should this matter to the general public? Well, for a number of reasons. One is that the financial cost of the Prison Service to the taxpayer has increased by £900 million since 1998, bringing the total cost to about £2.5 billion. This is public money that otherwise might have been used to build schools or hospitals, so we need to ask whether it is a wise investment.

There is also a human cost to society in having high levels of imprisonment.

Certainly, some offenders will have committed serious crimes, but they are a minority. In addition to people held on remand who have not been found guilty of any offence, the majority of convicted prisoners are serving relatively short sentences and can hardly be described as a serious threat to public safety. They certainly have a wide variety of social problems, some of which lead to persistent low-level offending.

If offending is to be brought to a halt, then the social problems will have to be dealt with first. The Government's Social Exclusion Unit has found that, compared with the population as a whole, prisoners are 13 times more likely to have been in care as a child, ten times more likely to have been a regular truant from school and 13 times more likely to be unemployed; 80 per cent have the writing skills of an 11-year-old; 70 per used drugs before coming to prison; and 70 per cent suffer from at least two mental disorders.

In addition, 20 per cent of male prisoners have previously attempted suicide, while the comparable figure for women prisoners is an astounding 37 per cent.

The increased use of imprisonment has been most marked among women.

Baroness Helena Kennedy noted in a recent Prison Reform Trust report that over the past ten years the number of women in prison has risen from an average daily figure of 1,811 to more than 4,500. The profile of these women makes sad reading: 66 per cent of them are on remand; fewer than one in ten is facing charges for violent offences; more women are sent to prison for shoplifting than for any other crime; less than half of those remanded in custody eventually received a prison sentence. As Kennedy comments: "Something has gone very wrong with our criminal justice system."

In 2003, 14 women died behind bars in England and Wales from self-inflicted injuries. As of November, 13 women had been found dead this year. In August, when Howard made his statement about the need to build more prisons, 14 men died in prison in England and Wales, the highest number since records began. Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, has said the prison system is in crisis and that too many vulnerable people are being jailed in a system that is unable to cope with their complex needs.

The prison system fulfils a very important public function in punishing those who have committed very serious crimes and in protecting society from the small number of people who pose a genuine threat to public safety. In that respect, one can claim that prison works. However, it is neither an efficient nor an effective method of dealing with the social problems created by homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness.

Furthermore, prison should not be expected to deal with failures in the education and health systems.

It also needs to be acknowledged that prison has a very narrow role to play in any attempt to reduce crime rates. The Home Office has estimated that a 25 per cent increase in the prison population may result in a 1 per cent reduction in the crime rate. That is not a good return on a very expensive investment.

The decision that we face as a society is whether we wish to use prison only for those who have committed the most serious crimes and from whom the public needs to be protected or whether we wish to use it as a major mechanism for dealing with a wide spectrum of social problems that would in reality, be much better dealt with outside the criminal justice system.

There is a famous aphorism that has been attributed in various forms to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela. It is that one sure way of measuring the civilisation of a society is by looking at the use it makes of prison. Using that measurement of civilisation, one has to conclude that we are not doing very well in this country at the moment.

Andrew Coyle is director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London. Anne Owers is giving the Human Rights Public Lecture on December 9 at the London School of Economics.

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