Recently, I’ve been thinking more about how British prisons could be reformed in ways that might actually do more good than harm to prisoners, to staff, to victims of crime and to our communities in general. At present, ‘prison reform’ – at least as far as successive governments seem to be concerned – is actually a weaselly code for further cutting of costs regardless of the harms that result. Reimagining the prison is something entirely different, although reducing costs could still be one of the positive outcomes.
|Prisons: do we need them?|
The first question is whether I believe that prisons are necessary for public safety. My quick response is yes, I do. In common with most people who have served a prison sentence, I can think of a small number of individuals that I have got to know personally inside who I believe are so dangerous to others that their presence in any community – no matter how closely supervised – will be a ticking time bomb, liable to explode at any moment.
Their anti-social attitudes and distorted thinking, even when suppressed or concealed during offending behaviour courses, virtually guarantees that they will reoffend, creating misery for new victims as they go. So yes, I believe that we do need our prisons to contain the most dangerous individuals in order to reduce the risk that more innocent people will get seriously harmed or even killed. In some cases, this includes members of a prisoner’s own family or neighbours.
However, the number of very dangerous men – and they are predominantly male – in our prisons is comparatively small. In fact, the select and notorious group of lifers who are considered so dangerous that they are serving what are known as ‘whole life tariffs’ (ie they will almost certainly die in prison with no foreseeable prospect of release) is limited to around 60 out of a current prison population, as of the time of writing, of just over 86,000, leaving some 85,940-odd who can expect to be released at some stage, assuming that they don’t die of either natural causes while in custody or because they are themselves the victims of violence whilst inside.
|The only way out for 60 prisoners|
Of these prisoners, 11,785 or so are currently on remand (of whom around 70 percent will either have charges dropped, will be acquitted by a jury or, even if convicted, will not be given a custodial sentence and will be released immediately from court). Thousands of others are serving short sentences – ranging from a few days to less than 12 months – during which they will never have any opportunity to address the reasons for their offending behaviour or access to any kind of meaningful support for various addictions or dependencies (drugs, alcohol, gambling). Such sentences can only be seen as being purely punitive, since there is not even the pretence of any rehabilitation on offer.
In the media, and on this blog, I’ve often described imprisonment in Britain as having been reduced to costly human warehousing. It often doesn’t even reduce crime significantly since various criminal activities seem to continue across the prison estate, particularly drug dealing, by means of illicit mobile phones, corrupt members of staff and networks of associates inside and out. Much as this ‘hidden offending’ continues to plague local communities, even when the driving force is behind bars yet still making money.
|Coming out worse than they went in?|
Worse still, individuals living with mental health problems and drug habits often seem to emerge back onto the street in an even worse state than when they were sent down. A significant number are discharged with heavy addictions that they didn’t have before they came into jail. If prisons were hospitals, the measurable outcomes would be far worse than even the most dysfunctional NHS trust on record. In these respects, imprisonment often causes harm, rather than reduces it.
So how can we start to reimagine our prisons? In my opinion the first challenge is to break our national dependency on – and obsession with – imprisonment as a response to crime (or most antisocial behaviour, for that matter). A surprising number of those detained on short sentences are actually irritating pests or nuisances, rather than violent offenders posing any real danger to the public. Jailing most people convicted of financial crime (especially theft and fraud) is particularly pointless, since imprisonment usually deprives the offender of any opportunity to recompense their victims.
Another particularly important question is why are we routinely holding thousands of unconvicted citizens on remand, particularly when the majority won’t even receive a custodial sentence assuming that they are eventually convicted in court? In some cases teenagers of 18 or 19 with no previous criminal record are being held on remand on Cat-B prison wings (and even in shared cells) with convicted, sometimes very dangerous adults. This is a recipe for disaster, including exploitation, bullying and even sexual abuse. Moreover, exposing impressionable young people to an environment where hardened criminality is rife is hardly likely to improve their life choices or reduce the risk of reoffending.
|Remanding Young Prisoners (18-21) in adult prisons|
By adopting a radical new approach to the issue of remand, where the automatic presumption should be in favour of post-charging bail (with appropriate monitoring and conditions as deemed necessary) as in the USA, this would mean that the onus would be on the prosecution to justify remand to secure accommodation – such as a bail hostel – in each case rather than sending those not yet convicted to prison, particularly those who have indicated that they will plead not guilty. Only in the most serious cases where there is a genuine risk of flight, intimidation of witnesses or other violence should the custodial threshold be met.
Even then, I would propose the use of special remand units where convicted and unconvicted prisoners are not held together. In reality, this is already enshrined in law, however most prison authorities simply choose to ignore the provisions of the Prison Act (1952) and have been known to threaten or punish remand prisoners who dare to complain.
Next I believe we should address the issue of short sentences that are purely punitive, rather than containing any element of rehabilitation. My own view is that any custodial sentence of less than a year is absolutely pointless. Sending someone down for a few days or weeks is a complete and utter waste of scarce resources. It also vastly increases the risk of homelessness on release. A positive move would be to abolish all such short custodial sentences in favour of more supportive community-based penalties, which most research (including the Ministry of Justice’s own data) indicates are likely to be more effective in actually reducing low-level reoffending.
|Prisons cannot cope with the elderly|
Reducing our historically high prison population should also be a key priority. Is prison really an appropriate place for the very elderly, the terminally ill, females (most of whom are not violent), the profoundly disabled or those living with serious mental health problems? In many cases I would argue not and repeated reports issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons reinforce the view that the Prison Service is not equipped or funded to address such complex needs. Moreover, the rigours of imprisonment can affect these groups disproportionally, so perhaps more radical solutions are required.
Some countries do not allow for the imprisonment of the elderly at all (usually those over 75), so why not learn from effective solutions that other jurisdictions have already identified? An interim solution might be to designate specific units or wings for prisoners who have specific needs where the focus is less on security and punitive regimes, and more on care and rehabilitation. Perhaps a pilot project involving secure residential accommodation for the elderly where they could both access their pensions and contribute to their own living costs might be worth exploring as an alternative to jail.
I believe that imprisonment needs to be regarded primarily as a necessary measure designed to contain those individuals who are assessed as being so dangerous that they cannot safely live back in the community until their behaviour and attitudes have been sufficiently modified, whether through education, therapy or vocational training. These targets need to be realistic and achievable, based on the offences committed, as well as the length and type of sentence.
|David - now Lord - Blunkett|
The absence of this structured approach was one of the many fatal flaws in the now discredited Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP), introduced by the then Labour Home Secretary David (now Lord) Blunkett in April 2005 and abolished by Parliament as an abject failure in 2012. A significant number of prisoners were handed IPPs with short tariffs for relatively minor repeat offences.
Some who were given minimum tariffs of a few months or a couple of years in the early days of the sentencing regime are still languishing inside today, often because the main evidence of reduced risk required to satisfy the Parole Board is successful completion of offending behaviour courses that simply haven’t been available owing to shortages of resources. As the High Court ruled back in 2007, this is unlawful. In reality, it amounts to arbitrary detention that now achieves nothing beyond destroying those individuals – and their families – who are caught up in the nightmare.
I am convinced that if we really want to reimagine our prison system, then an urgent solution needs to be found to address the IPP problem, since these inmates account for around 4,600 (as of March 2015) of the current prison population. Managing them and their cases also places considerable strain on understaffed prison offender management units. Those interested in reading more about this issue can find a recent House of Commons briefing paper published in August 2015 here.
Solving the IPP question would both address a failed policy that even its architect, Lord Blunkett, has since admitted is “unjust”, as well as allow for a significant reduction in the ‘lifer’ population. This, in turn, could free up resources to improve the management and monitoring of those who would be released on licence back in the community.
|Can HMPS be made fit for purpose?|
I am convinced that if we take the approach of reducing the prison population very substantially – perhaps by identifying specific groups that do not really merit or require confinement, as well as actively seeking more effective alternatives – the Prison Service could be made fit for purpose, even in an era of austerity. The current overcrowding crisis could be addressed, while existing staff resources could be better deployed to refocus on offender management, rehabilitation, education and the tackling of security breaches. The reasons for low staff morale also need to be addressed.
Recently, Michael Gove, the new Justice Secretary, has made encouraging noises about prison reform. He has highlighted the need to put education at the centre of rehabilitation, as well as raising the issue of earned early release.
Specific proposals have yet to be unveiled. However, while our prison population remains historically high at over 86,000, the scope for genuine reform is going to be severely limited, due to a toxic combination of overcrowding, understaffing and lack of resources. Unless the prisons budget is going to be substantially increased – which seems highly unlikely at a time when spending is being cut – then the only viable way out of the current crisis is likely to be a substantial reduction in the prison population. Hopefully Mr Gove will arrive at a similar conclusion.