Crime and yet more punishment

Prison doesn't work, says Eddie Ford

Inexorably, the UK prison population continues to grow. With no answers or solutions, the reflex action of the ruling class is to bang 'em up, lock 'em up. Out of sight, out of mind.

So, according to official home office statistics, the total number in custody on November 30 2006 was 80,550 - with 79,835 in prisons, 206 in police cells, 284 in secure training centres and 225 in secure children's homes. Overall, this represents a four percent increase from last year, but the biggest single increase is to be found amongst the 15 to 17-year-old category - up by five percent to 2,515 (www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs07/prisnov06.pdf).

To compound the already dark picture, the home office predicts that by 2010 the number of people sent to prison will have risen to a total of 110,000 - not forgetting that each inmate currently costs an average of £38,000 a year to keep holed up in the overcrowded hell-holes that are the UK's prisons.

As these grim figures reveal, the UK has one of the most repressive and punitive criminal justice systems - if you can grace it with such a term - in Europe. Over a year ago, The Guardian pointed out that "We now have more prisoners per head of population than some of the most repressive foreign regimes, such as Burma, China and Saudi Arabia" (October 14 2005). Who knows, perhaps by now the UK has overtaken these countries?

True, having said all this, the UK and these other similarly 'enlightened' states still have a long way to go if they want to catch up with the United States - the mother of all locker-uppers. As of December 2005 the US, obscenely, had a prison population of 2,193,798 - a 2.7% rise on 2004. And that does not include the staggering 4.8 million adults either on probation or parole (www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/prisons.htm). Welcome to the Big House. And of course, being America, blacks and Hispanics constitute a staggeringly disproportionate percentage of that population.

But just because there is a 'big Satan', that does not therefore mean that the behaviour of the 'little Satan' becomes rendered virtuous by comparison. The UK's fondness for incarceration surely proves the case that the selfsame punitive and vengeful ethos we find in the US penal system also exists - and flourishes - in the UK, we regret to say. Thanks to the increasingly harsher regime in this country, more and more people - especially young adults and teenagers - are now receiving custodial sentences for crimes that previously did not merit such punishment. What a waste of lives - and of resources, human and material.

However, crime always excites and inflames the conservative - and reactionary - mind, whether in the tabloids or elsewhere. Hence we have been subjected to a flurry of 'law and order' pseudo-scandals and panics, all designed to convey the impression that the country is 'too soft on crime' and that 'something has to be done'.

First came the news that the home office had failed to keep a proper record - if indeed any records at all - about British citizens who had been convicted while abroad. Then we discovered that it had also failed to enforce travel bans on 147 convicted drug traffickers. Things really started to heat up, though, when the News of the World - always the disinterested seeker of truth - used the Freedom of Information Act to find out that the police had lost track of the whereabouts of 322 convicted sex offenders. If the News of the World can find a way to whip up yet more anxiety and fear about sex offenders, paedophiles, etc, then it will.

Next - and it was at this point that the accumulating rows became 'officially' political - was when John 'not fit for purpose' Reid wrote a letter "reminding" judges about the "existing guidelines" on sentencing - which stipulate that only the most serious or persistent offenders should receive custodial sentences. Naturally, the judges were expected to take the chronic prison overcrowding situation into account.

Mere days later in court, whether in an act of pique against John Reid or not, Judge Graham Cottle said he had decided to release 46-year-old Keith Morris from Newton Abbot - facing a maximum of 14 years in jail for serious sex offences - on bail pending a pre-sentence report, citing Reid's comments on prison overcrowding as part of his reasoning: "If this case had been here last week," Cottle told Exeter crown court, "it would have been over by now and he would be in Exeter prison."

Upon hearing this news, The Sun went apoplectic - its front-page bearing a photo of the home secretary's head with a large question mark plastered all over it and the headline proclaiming, "John Reid's brain is missing". No less complimentary, the attendant article argued that "after his abysmal failure to solve the prisons crisis" there were also "fears for the home secretary's sanity after he broke a series of promises to get a grip of the overcrowding fiasco" - but, even worse, "in what could have been a sign of dementia, he has resorted to begging judges to let crooks loose rather than send them to the slammer", leaving The Sun to conclude that Reid's "walnut-sized brain" is "on the run" (January 25).

Of course, it almost goes without saying that Reid has denied telling judges to give criminals softer sentences to ease prison overcrowding. Indeed, he boasted to the BBC's Today programme on January 28 that under Labour, more serious criminals were being jailed for longer, or being given indeterminate sentences. He was quick to point out that 20,000 new prison places had been created since Labour came to power and that he personally had commissioned another 8,000 since taking up his job last May - which were being built "as we speak now". On top of that, Reid told Today listeners that a bold programme of "reforming" the home office would take some two and a half years. Reid was no liberal wuss who was going to go around 'hugging hoodies' - or at least that was the message.

Frankly, communists think that the Stalinist-turned-Blairite Reid is quite entitled to feel seriously peeved at the suggestion that either he or New Labour in general do not fully embrace the reactionary 'law and order' agenda first staked out by Thatcher's Tories - and screeched out each and every day in the rightwing press. He does, and they do.

On the other hand, communists think that the so-called criminal justice system is in fact itself criminal - and needs to be radically transformed. By any rational, humane and social standard, sending more and more people to prison does not work - whatever reactionary idiots might prattle on about. Clearly, the government - and the ruling class in general - have no real answers when it comes to the anti-social crime that blights so many cities and towns, just more laws and more prison places.

We also have to note that yet again Socialist Worker has penned a rather desultory - and extremely short - editorial on this subject. In fact, to say that the piece would not be out of place in The Guardian would be rather unfair to the paper - which has published much stronger stuff. Instead, Socialist Worker blandly informs us that prisons are "increasingly used to lock up people who have social problems" and who "are sick or have addictions" - even though, it continues, "these people need medical and social care, not prison". The editorial concludes that "locking people up for being poor or sick is a scandal" (February 3).

Is that it, comrades? Have you nothing else to say on the matter?

Blair famously promised to deal with "crime and the causes of crime" - and we always knew what he meant by that. But for communists - as we have always stressed - crime can only be understood in relation to the given society. And, inevitably in a class society, anti-social crime is mainly a product of alienation, want or resistance - and the 'justice system', while reflecting the balance of class forces, essentially aims to beat the population into submission.

As for us, the aim must always be rehabilitation - not punishment or revenge, let alone cruelty. In a society of freely associated producers, the need for prison, even as a last resort, would gradually decrease before ending altogether.