Wednesday, 22 June 2011
Our prison system is one I have written about before (here and here), and the way in which successive Governments have approached it causes me great discomfort. Labour's policy was all based on targets. If they could prove that fewer people were in prison, the world must have been a safer place, because that must mean there were fewer baddies about. Unfortunately it meant that they just started letting people out early because there wasn't enough room. The Coalition were seemingly basing their policies on working out how much money they have (or don't have) and therefore how many prisoners they can afford to have. Then they would adjust the sentencing policy to suit the figures. Both approaches are beyond terrible. They have been playing fast and loose with a very serious topic.
There are a couple of strands to pick up on here. The first, is that of what should govern the size of our prison population: The number of people in prison should be in pretty direct proportion to the number of bad people being caught doing bad things. What we want in society is fewer bad people doing fewer bad things. This won't always happen though. If that means sometimes we go through a phase of increasing the prison population then so be it. There is no point massaging the output figures (numbers in jail) cosmetically to pretend the input (volume of crime) is getting better - look where that has got us with school exam results.
The cost of this incarceration is something we have generally to grin and bear (though we can surely find savings). Simply locking fewer people up for shorter periods of time to save money is itself criminal. We cannot allow the question of cost to be the primary factor or even a major factor in determining how long a sentence should be. By all means, it should be considered within the wider scheme of the cost of crime; not just walls, guards and bars but the cost of the justice system, the damage crime does to the economy, to the social fabric of society. Therein we may see more investment in crime prevention, but the costs of physically locking people up should not have a major direct effect on sentencing policy which it so obviously was having under these latest proposals.
The point that they are all missing is that you do not reduce crime by reducing prisoner numbers. It works the other way round. We should not think of the number of people in prison as a measure of how well or how badly we are doing in the fight against crime. Instead we need to look at why people commit crime and how we can have a positive influence there. If there are more criminals we need to address the causes, but in the meantime, build another prison.
Crime is linked with many things; drugs, drink, deprivation, social class, joblessness, geography. Ultimately though, the vast majority of it comes down to one thing - education. Whilst there are a few intelligent, well-educated lags languishing behind bars. they are the exception.
So we lead onto our second strand - what can the prison system do to help itself and help society? Simply put; education - and with this one stone we kill two birds. We remove the well-placed public disquiet at the easy life some lead inside of Sky tv, computer games, pool and generally doing nothing with their lives and at the same time reduce reoffending rates and help society (and the prisoners themselves) by the rehabilitation of prisoners.
Now I'm sure people will tell me education is available in prisons, but that is not enough. For many, they didn't want to learn at school, and there were plenty of alternatives. Prison gives them similar alternatives and very few leave more educated than they entered. I say remove the alternatives - all of them. Let the only thing prisoners can do be educate themselves and work, be it academic or vocational/skills based training. Prisons will be rather better guarded boarding schools. I'm sure there will remain a core of people totally disinterested who will sit in their cells lamenting the "breaches of their human rights" as they have their Playstations removed, but it has to be a step on the right direction for the prison population.
Prisoners cost the state more per capita to support than soldiers or children. Yet we ask nothing of them and are surprised when they give nothing in return. Prison should not be easy, and there is no doubt in my mind we are far too soft in this area. It needs to serve as a deterrent and cannot do so when prisoners can laze about doing nothing, kicking back watching tv, not worrying about where the next meal is coming from. Life on the inside is not meant to be a breeze in comparison to life outside - if it is we have missed a trick. On the other side, the prison system should be rehabilitative, and nothing is more intrinsic to improving the chances of released prisoners not reoffending than educating them and giving them the skills to survive in the real world of straight jobs. Give them qualifications; from basic literacy to manual trade skills and even further education through Open University for the more academically talented. By changing prisons to schools, we remove the soft side to prison that clearly is not working as a deterrent and attracts much negative attention form the press and people, and give prisoners a genuine chance at turning their lives around. The potential benefit for all is obvious.
A third strand we could talk about is sentencing policy, but that is a very large topic. Are initial sentences what we think is the right amount to serve or are they artificially raised (like pre-sale store prices) to account for the inevitable deductions (guilty plea / early release)? Are we sending the right people to prison for the right amount of time? Should we be using community service orders more, or doing more for those with mental problems? They are all key discussion points, but regardless, prison can and should be made to work better for society and for prisoners. Dostoyevsky wrote that "the degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons." I'd say right now such a journey would make us look naive, with a system that neither deters nor rehabilitates. Unfortunately, pleased as I am to see the further shortening of sentences for guilty pleas axed, I do not see the new Justice Bill going far in addressing the systemic issues at hand.