Rehabilitation, not punishment

Prison does not work, writes Eddie Ford

It is a long-held maxim that you can gauge the nature of a society - measure its 'civilisation quotient' - by examining its penal system, particularly the way it treats its prisoners.

Judged by this criterion, there can be no doubt that the UK stands condemned as a barbarous society, and furthermore as one which is steadily deteriorating to ever lower standards. In danger of becoming a giant island prison camp moored off the more enlightened European continent, the UK seems addicted to an ultimately self-defeating regime of punitive and cruel incarceration - lock 'em up and make 'em suffer.

Indeed, so bad has the situation become that out of the advanced capitalist countries only the United States has a worst record - proudly topping the charts with the highest documented per capita rate of imprisonment of any country in the world. Mind-bogglingly, as of the end of 2007, in the United States 7.2 million people were either behind bars, on probation or on parole - with 2.3 million of these actually incarcerated, non-whites disproportionately accounting for 70% of the prisoner population (and 5.9% of the overall total consists of foreign, non-US citizens). Or, to put it another way, this means that at the start of 2008 more than one in 100 American adults were behind bars, with approximately one in every 18 men coming under the attention in some way of the judicial system.1 Of course, the ongoing, utterly futile - and unwinnable - 'war on drugs' bears a large burden of responsible for this social and economic vandalism.

By contrast to the US, the People's Republic of China seems positively liberal, coming second in the world penal league table with a rather paltry-sounding 1.5 million banged up - which, taking into fact that its population is four times that of the US, clocks in at about only 18% of the US imprisonment rate. Something for Barack Obama to be proud of, eh?

True, the UK still has some way to go before it matches the penal performance of either the US or China, but it is certainly making a determined effort to criminalise and lock up ever large numbers of the population. So we have the truly grim depiction of British society as presented in the latest report conducted by the Prison Reform Trust and summarised in The Independent on Sunday. A hellish picture of unbearable overcrowding, callous indifference and a consistently high rate of reoffending - amounting to a prison system that is both pitilessly ineffective and grotesquely wasteful of resources. Or, to use the words of the PRT report, a situation that is rapidly developing into a human and social 'disaster area': a prison service that is 'simply not fit for purpose' - assuming, that is, that the 'purpose' of a judiciary system is to rehabilitate offenders back into society rather than vindictively wreak revenge and retribution upon them and their families.2

The prison population has grown by no less than 66% since 1995 - from the 61,100 when Labour came to power in 1997 to the point last month where it hit a new record of 84,706, ensuring that England and Wales have the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe. There are now 154 people in jail per 100,000 of the population, which could rise to as many as 178 if the inmate size grows to 96,000 by 2014 - a figure for which the government is actively, and ghoulishly, making preparations. By contrast, in France - which has a similar population to the UK - there are just 59,655 people behind bars.

Thanks to the relentless rise in inmate numbers, the prison system has been officially overcrowded since 1994, with a quarter of prisoners doubled up - sometimes even more so - in a cell originally designed for one. Though prison capacity has increased by a third since 1997, with more than 20,000 beds added, this obviously is nowhere near enough to hold the numbers that the government wants to incarcerate.

But quite monstrously - and something the tabloid press cares not to highlight, of course - in the same period outlined above there has been an actual drop in the number of convictions: the number of offences recorded by police in the UK fell from 5,075,000 in 1991 to 4,951,000 in 2007, and this produced a fall of 1,300 in the number of people found guilty in court.

In other words, the UK penal system - just like its American counterpart - is being used as a social dumping ground for society's 'awkward citizens', with prison a capacious net into which those betrayed by the public services are scooped up and then effectively forgotten, neither seen nor heard. Hence the vast majority of people shoved into prison test positive for class A drugs and/or have a serious drink problem. Tellingly, but depressingly, 7% of all children at some time in their school years will have undergone the distressing experience of seeing their father incarcerated - so much so that by 2006 more children were affected by the imprisonment of a parent than by divorce in the family.

We can see this social phenomenon - prison acting as a kind of auxiliary arm of social services - most notably with regard to those who suffer from various mental health issues. Thus one-fifth of all prisoners have multiple mental health disorders, and in the first eight months of 2008 there were 15,800 recorded incidents of 'self-harm' - 54% of which involved women, despite the fact that they make up just 5% cent of the total prison population. In fact, more than a third of female prisoners have attempt suicide at some time in their life, leaving the UK prison system open to the charge of institutional misogyny.

As for youth prisoners, the picture is also bleak. Almost a quarter of all young offenders are classified as having 'learning difficulties' and 71% have been involved with - or have been in the care of - social services before they entered custody. Professionals in this field argue that secure homes are a more effective and humane way of dealing with youth offenders. However, due to myopic penny-pinching, such facilities are being phased out in favour of detention centres - where the bill per young person is '60,000 a year, as opposed to the '215,000 annual bill for a secure children's home.

Then there is the prison system's 'hidden army' - that is, ex-servicemen and women who upon return to civilian life are effectively abandoned. According to a new survey by the National Association of Probation Officers, the number of former service personnel in prison or on probation/parole is more than double the total British deployment in Afghanistan. So there are an estimated 20,000 war veterans in the criminal justice system, with a staggering 8,500 behind bars: thus representing almost one in 10 of the entire prison population (many of whom were homeless prior to conviction/imprisonment). Additionally, the proportion of ex-soldiers in prison has risen by more than 30% in the last five years - predictably, the majority have chronic alcohol or drug problems, with nearly half suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as a result of their experiences on active service. Everybody seems to love 'our boys and girls'... until they get home, that is.

Of course, there have been repeated warnings about the irrational, self-perpetuating nature of the UK penal system. For example, in April of this year we had the Bradley Review - which issued a clarion call for 'community alternatives' to custodial sentences for offenders suffering from mental health problems and learning difficulties - only to be totally ignored by the government. The review was especially concerned by the almost 6,000 imprisoned under the Kafkaesque-sounding Indeterminate Public Protection orders - as many of these suffer from serious mental health problems. Incredibly, there has been a more than 400% rise in the number of people serving IPP sentences in the last year alone, nearly half of whom were being held beyond their original tariff expiry date (most have no means of demonstrating that they present no 'risk to the public').

On the other end of the spectrum, so to speak, there is another grave cause for concern - as pointed out in the PRT report: the dramatic rise in the number of people serving 'fleeting' sentences - those locked away for three months or less rose by 16% between 2007 and 2008, with almost 29,000 people serving short-stay tariffs. Far from being a manifestation of a more 'liberal' approach, fleeting sentences are highly destructive - just serving to needlessly embitter and further criminalise individuals, if not semi-institutionalise them. For such offenders the reconviction rate reaches an appalling 60% - almost twice as high as among those sentenced to 'community work' instead. Women are particularly likely to serve damaging short sentences, and in the last decade the number of women in prison has risen by 44% - taking the female prison population to 4,274. In this manner, short sentences inflict a particularly heavy toll on family life, and could be regarded as a form of child abuse - with increasing numbers of children finding themselves being deprived of a mother.

The result of the generalised insanity that is the UK judiciary-penal system is that expenditure on prisons has risen from '2.8 billion in 1995 to '3.8 billion in 2008 - and the semi-feverish rate of prison building, at a cost of '170,000 per prisoner, is now set to propel the UK past most eastern European countries for prison capacity. Meanwhile reoffenders cost society at least '11 billion a year - the overall reconviction rate for released inmates has gone from 58% to 65% in the past five years. And, of course, the real failure rate must be even higher, because the official figures naturally only include those former inmates the police actually catch and convict. Just use your imagination and logic to work out the rest.

No, prison manifestly does not work - contrary to what Michael Howard, former Tory leader, once notoriously and stupidly claimed when he was home secretary. But the Brown government ploughs on regardless, creating thousands of new offences and a whole raft of mandatory minimum penalties - announcing in April that they would create five 1,500-placement jails around the country, even though all research to date shows that prisons with 400 or fewer inmates consistently perform better in terms of rehabilitation (not that this is saying much) than those with more than 800.

Self-evidently, the idea that you can rehabilitate offenders by confining them to foetid prison cells for up to 23 hours a day (because the authorities just do not have the staff to monitor them properly) is fanciful utopianism of the most wretched and reactionary sort. Communists militantly oppose the establishment's inhuman approach to crime and punishment and demand: