Prison isn’t working – Labour shouldn’t be afraid to say so

Whenever the Tories ramp up their punitive law and order agenda, the justice system is shunted back into the spotlight temporarily. So often, however, discourse is dominated by bad faith, selective attempts to whip up fear and pander to authoritarian populism, advocating harsh prison sentences. The problem is, prisons – in their current form – don’t work.

England and Wales have the highest prison population in Western Europe, with the population rising by 74% in the last 30 years. In 2020, 63% of all prisoners were in custody for a non-violent offence. This clearly shows that, whilst the justice system is failing to deal with some of the most dangerous behaviour in society, prisons are being used to detain a significant number of people for whom prison is probably not the right response. It is public perception – heavily influenced by penal populism in the media and by politicians – of how crime is best tackled and who goes to prison which prevents us from coming up with real solutions for a very cold reality. Truth is – putting hundreds in prison on more minor, non-violent offences drives up reoffending and public health problems, meanwhile some of the most dangerous people evade justice.

Public opinion tends to favour harsh punishments for offenders, regardless of the crime they are charged with – even when there’s no evidence that taking a more hardline approach will reduce crime. One key example of this is the recent YouGov polling which asked the public their views on the sentences given to offenders. 62% of respondents said that prison sentences weren’t tough enough. Recently, child murderer and rapist Colin Pitchfork was released from prison after serving 33 years. Pitchfork is clearly one of the most dangerous offender types on the spectrum – and there will be much debate about whether his sentence was long enough. The adequacy and ‘toughness’ of sentencing for crimes like Pitchfork’s, should be a world away from the conversation of sentencing for much lower level crimes – or we risk incarcerating those who probably don’t belong in prisons with offenders like Pitchfork.

In order to counteract this seemingly widely held sentiment, we must delve into public perceptions of the justice system’s purpose. Is it to rehabilitate? Or purely to punish and get revenge? In the case of the latter, Labour has a bigger challenge on its hands when it comes to deciding how to disseminate policy on the matter. Progressives should be measuring prison performance against 2 key aims – rehabilitation and public protection. As we know that reoffending rates in the UK are high, that first key test is being failed. As for the second criterion, prisons might incapacitate more serious offenders whilst they are inside, but what happens when they’re released? Without a properly functioning and fully-funded regime inside prisons to encourage behavioural change and equip inmates for life outside of prison walls, release is a gamble.

Ideally, the justice system should often be viewed as a linear process – with prison being one of the latter stages. If policymakers get things right at the start of the chain, prison can be an outcome that is avoided. This is where diversion schemes, other sentencing types (community service) and, crucially, addressing the root causes of crime come into the fold. Instead, there is a heavy reliance on prison as a magic bullet to reduce crime on its own. What good is increasing the sentence for rape, when fewer than 1 in 60 rape convictions end in prosecution? Crime reduction calls for proactive, evidence-based strategies – not reactionary, knee-jerk plans which don’t actually deliver justice for victims or improve public safety.

For all their fixating on the economy and ensuring “value for taxpayer money”, the Tories are wasting a lot of money incarcerating largely low-level offenders. The average cost of imprisonment to the taxpayer works out to £44,000 per prisoner per year (based on latest available figures), so longer sentences also equates to higher costs. So is the huge cost worth it? Evidence suggests not. 48% of adults reoffend within a year of release. 59.7% of offenders who spend less than a year in prison reoffend and despite the increase in our prison population over recent decades, reoffending rates have stayed about the same suggesting putting more people in prison is not reducing criminal offending.

There is clear evidence that prisons are actually causing harm. In their annual report for 2018/19, the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales found ‘far too many of our jails have been plagued by drugs, violence, appalling living conditions and a lack of access to meaningful rehabilitative activity. In addition to this there were  high levels of self harm and instances of suicide rising by 15% from the previous year. The report did find better conditions in women’s prisons, but found the types of prisons which hold the majority of male offenders had severe staffing shortages, putting prisoners and staff at risk.

Not only are prisons dangerous and unfit for purpose, they also replicate the many existing inequalities at play in wider society.

Research has found there to be a disparity between ethnic groups and their likelihood of receiving a custodial sentence. Black and Asian people were found to be 53% and 55% more likely to receive custodial sentences for the same offences as white people, respectively. GRT communities, just as other BAME groups, are overrepresented in prisons, but analysis has shown inadequate data collection and monitoring practices that preclude GRT prisoners from having their needs met. Only 1% of all offenders who made allegations of racial discrimination by staff had their complaints upheld.

Equally, those with learning disabilities and mental health conditions are overrepresented in the prison population.  Inspections into regimes found that “little thought was given to the need to adapt regimes to meet the needs of prisoners with learning disabilities who may find understanding and following prison routines very difficult”Clearly pertinent questions must be asked as to whether prisons are the best place for those who may benefit from a more therapeutic element to their sentence. Sadly, penal populism brands most attempts at diversion from custody as “a soft touch”.

The Left, and the Labour Party more broadly, must therefore oppose lazy, unimaginative Justice policies that only result in the warehousing of often already marginalised people, in prisons. Most would agree that the worst offenders should face tough sentences for the crimes they commit – but we need to stop seeing offenders as one homogenous group, and realise that different levels of risk require different responses. The media and political responses to crime reduction are the biggest barrier to ensuring the public supports tangible and effective policy. If we as a society want to see crime tackled, we need to know that the same old “lock them all up and throw away the key” rhetoric that has been drummed into us for decades is entirely counterproductive.

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