Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Rising Prison Population

We recently passed the 85,000 mark in the UK's prison population... the very fact that the number of people who are imprisoned continues to rise (even though the overall recorded crime figures are falling) does tend to suggest that as a deterrent, at least, prison does not appear to work. Sentences are also getting longer, which is another factor in the rise of the prison population, as is continuing detention in prisons of immigration detainees who have not committed criminal offences (for example at HMP Verne on Portland).

Another little acknowledged fact is that around 10 percent of people held in UK prisons are unconvicted and on remand awaiting trial. These people are legally speaking innocent, yet they are often treated in exactly the same way as convicted inmates (even though the Prison Act is supposed to give them special status and they are not supposed to be prison for punishment). Many of these citizens will eventually be acquitted by juries and released back on to the street without a penny in compensation for the months, or even years, they have been held on remand.

In reality, the primary purpose of prison in Britain today is human warehousing, rather than serious rehabilitation or preparation for resettlement back into society. Mental health care provision can be extremely poor for prisoners, with tragic results, as the story above demonstrates.

Bunk beds
Almost all prisoners in British prisons (other than around 55 who are serving 'whole life' tariffs) will eventually be released, having cost the taxpayer an average of £40,000 per year each. Reoffending rates, particularly for those serving short sentences, are unacceptably high, so what is the Ministry of Justice - and its boss Chris Grayling - doing about a public service that is currently failing to deliver against its own targets? Well... pointless tinkering with the minutiae of every day routines and petty regulations; removing local governors' discretion over day to day issues; cutting back frontline staff; slashing education and vocational training budgets and chasing after cheap headlines in the tabloids (eg "lights out at 10.30 pm for young offenders"; making male prisoners wear dirty, badly fitting uniforms for the first two weeks; banning parcels from home)... It would be funny, were it not so tragic.

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