57. Re-Evaluating Our Prison Systems

The entire prison systems (or industries) of both the United States and the United Kingdom are so unfit for purpose that they demand a serious rethink. In its lead editorial The Observer declared: “The prison system is a stain on our society.”1 It is also a dark blot on “the American way of life.” All too many inmates in both countries are being held in the wrong places and in the wrong ways: The mentally disturbed should be given hospital care and treatment, not cruel imprisonment.

Before focusing on the larger problem of the prisons ruled by brutality and fear, it is important to recognize that both countries have failed to come to grips with the challenges of mental health in their jails. The Prison Reform Trust (UK) has reported that at least 15% of men and 25% of women convicts are suffering from the symptoms of psychosis. Indeed, in most prisons there are psychotics who need to be confined to isolation units and are often in need of 24-7 supervision. The columnist Nick Cohen has written that “when the coalition subtracted political cost from economic gain it found those with disabilities were the easiest people in Britain to dispose of… People who ought to be mentally disabled patients are the inmates of the one British institution that treats them with greater disdain than the National Health Service.”2

In an in-depth report on the emergency state of Britain’s jails, the Financial Times concluded that “According to unions and justice campaigners, a toxic cumulation of budget cuts, harsher conditions for inmates and a steadily rising jail population has pushed prisons in England and Wales to the breaking point.”3 The prison population of 86,000 is now higher than when the government came to power almost five years ago on the promise to cut the numbers. At 149 people per 100,000 inhabitants, the incarceration rate in the UK is TEN times that of the Netherlands and is the highest in Europe. It has in fact doubled from just 41,800 in 1993, however it is one fifth of the outrageously high figure of 707 per 100,00 in the United States.

In the UK the high rate is in part thanks to the tabloids which depend on crime and punishment to counter their sagging sales. They repeatedly promote the notion that “prison works.” Politicians, in turn, don’t dare to contradict this false proposition. Almost one-third of crimes committed in the UK last year were made by ex-convicts. Evidence points out that wrong-doers serving community sentences instead of incarceration are less likely to re-offend than the 58% of those released after time in prison.4 Under the misguidance of the inept Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, prisoners living in inhumane conditions in the overcrowded jails are now kept from exposing their plight because they no longer can receive legal aid in any judicial review. Grayling caused a storm when he introduced a ban last April on sending books to prison inmates. This was a reflection not only on his attitude toward those imprisoned, but also on the more general social attitude that prisoners should be punished rather than educated. In August the outsourced contractor A4e withdrew from its deal to educate and train prisoners in 12 London boroughs because such rehabilitation efforts did not yield them sufficient profits.

To keep prisoners idle in a highly secure institution costs £36,800 (over $50,000) a year. Educating or training them in a college would cost far less! The President of the Prison Governors Association, Eoin McLennan Murray has said “The fact that they are left locked up in their cells watching daytime TV is our failing, not theirs.” This reflects the fact that prisoners watching television need fewer guards to watch them, that is, it lowers costs.

Austerity has also damaged the prison service: It has had to make cuts of about 20 percent overall. This has entailed closing down 18 of the smaller prisons over the past three years and reducing the staffing ratio from 2.9 for every inmate a decade ago to 4.8 today. Some 22,000 prisoners in England now are forced to share cells designed to hold just one person. To attack this problem, one misguided solution which has dominated the government’s projections is to build much larger prisons.

When the super-sized Oakwood Prison was opened in 2012 it was hailed by ministers as the blue-print for a new generation of giant money-saving jails which would be run by such outsourced contractors as G4S. Two years later this disgraced and much embattled security company is trying to cope with the chaos which reigns for Oakwood’s 1,600 restless inmates. The young, inexperienced and low-paid staff have to tackle the challenge of drugs, alcohol, and corruption. This huge prison has now been described in the Guardian as “the worst in the country.”5

There are now 28 large prisons in England and Wales each holding over 1,000 prisoners. The larger the prison, the greater its inhumanity. Attacks on wardens have risen dramatically in these institutions because the reductions in staff have made those remaining more vulnerable in an atmosphere brutalized by the unacceptable conditions. The National Tactical Response Squad, a special prison riot team, has been called out more than 200 times in the past year to put down serious disturbances. Justice Minister Grayling, fearful for his job, has declared “There is not a crisis in our prisons.” The chief executive of the Howard League for Prison Reform, Frances Crook, replied: “There isn’t a crisis, it’s an emergency.”

Sexual abuse in prisons both in the UK and the US is widespread but difficult to ascertain. It occurs between prisoners as well as between keepers and male as well as female inmates. Under-reporting of such abuse is inevitable for this is a “hidden issue in a hidden world” where video scanning is off-limits. “People who are sexually assaulted or raped are very unlikely to say anything because they are too scared, have been traumatized and will be bullied and victimized.”6

The national prison scandals are much aggravated by the fact that in the UK alone, some 200,000 children are deeply affected because a member of their family — usually their father — is in jail. The trauma of these kids is not recognized by the government nor by the public. The tabloids demean and the government restricts family visits to the prisons. Only charitable groups, like Barnardos provide limited support and understanding. Many of the children suffer mental health problems as a consequence and are three times as likely to fall foul of the law as others in heir peer group. However, there are no official records kept of their existence.

Member of Parliament Kenneth Clarke, who held the job of Justice Minister before Grayling, is an outspoken critic of this manifestly flawed prison system. He asked: “Can we have a criminal justice system in which we have more and more people in prison at great expense only to have more and more come out and commit more crime?”

Rehabilitation should be an overriding aim of any prison system, not punishment or cutting costs. I strongly believe that most jails in both the UK and the US should be closed as being excessively expensive, not fit for purpose, incapable of resolving any social problem, and are in fact counter-productive to society’s needs. A large proportion of those convicted of non-violent crimes should not be imprisoned but placed into the care of mental hospitals. Most of the others should be tagged, with their movements restricted and controlled. Only those convicted of violent crimes should be placed into high security institutions.

Life-changing electronic tagging is the best way out of the now historically outdated forms of imprisonment. Electronic tagging has now become widespread in the Netherlands where it successfully offers those who have been convicted the opportunity for genuine rehabilitation. What is stopping such radical change in the UK and the US? The prison industry: Too many jobs, profits and power are at stake.

Represented by powerful and capable lobbyists, officials of this industry will use their money, contacts and influence to undermine any large-scale reforms. Yes, there are better ways. There are alternative approaches to punishment and public safety. The wider public must push their elected representatives to transform these now socially obsolete institutions.


1The Observer, September 9, 2014, p.32
2Nick Cohen, “Scandal of prisoners who should be patients,” The Guardian, June 1, 2014
3Helen Warrell, “Jails at breaking point,” The Financial Times, August 23, 2014
4“Stuffed,” The Economist, August 2, 2014, p.10
5Steven Morris and Eric Allison, “Tales from the inside,” The Guardian, April 10, 2014, p.14
6Alan Travis, “Call for urgent inquiry into sexual abuse in prisons,” The Guardian, September 15, 2014, p.14

2 thoughts on “57. Re-Evaluating Our Prison Systems

  1. Dear Yorick,

    A splendid piece about a national disgrace. Warmest congratulations ………from someone who was once offered a lectureship in criminology at the LSE. (And at a time when crime was higher and the prison population was much smaller!)

    Love, Ronald

  2. Pingback: 63. Which Way is Europe Turning? | Yorick's Blog

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