Evidence of a crisis in our prison system seems to mount almost daily.

Whether it’s the sharp rise in violence in our gaols; the despair of over-stretched prison officers resorting to unlawful action in order to protest; prisoners escaping; or ‘out of control’ prisons where the inmates seem to have taken over, posting Facebook pictures of what a great time they’re having, the conclusion seems inescapable. The prison system is on the brink. A successions of home secretaries have said they want to do something about it, but the situation just keeps getting worse. What should be done? Should we give it greater priority and spend more money on it? Or do we need to change our whole attitude to how we deal with criminals? Or both?

‘Prison works’ was the famous claim of Michael Howard, the Tory home secretary in the 1990s. He argued that we should look more people up in order to keep society safer. To many people, the fall in the crime rate that occurred afterwards seemed to bear him out. But twenty years or so on, the continuing high reoffending rates among those released from prison and, even more, the fact that so many prisons appear to be at breaking point, suggest that whether or not ‘prison works’, the prison system itself is clearly not working.

Britain imprisons a higher proportion of its citizens than almost any other comparable country, and certainly far more than any in Europe. Since Mrs Thatcher left office (and she was hardly regarded as a softie on such issues) the prison population has doubled. It now stands at nearly 86,000, and has been growing rapidly in the last three years or so. Around 10,000 of these prisoners are foreign nationals.

Within the total there are about 3,500 prisoners who, through no fault of their own, have been inside for far longer than their sentences required. They were recipients of a sentencing policy adopted over ten years ago but subsequently abandoned: the policy of ‘Imprisonment for Public Protection’. It was intended to ensure that high-risk prisoners could be detained beyond their sentences if they were deemed still to be a risk to the public but that’s not exactly how it has worked out. Instead, such sentences have been imposed on people committed of lesser crimes. Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, says  in a report published this week that of 693 such prisoners who were initially sentenced for two years or less, 77% have been in prison for between five and ten years, without any good reason and with little prospect of things changing. As well as being unjust, their plight adds to overcrowding in our prisons and that is already a serious problem.

There are 20,000 male prisoners forced to share cells designed for one person. Many have to spend up to twenty-one hours incarcerated in their cells simply as a means of coping with the excess numbers. Inevitably the result has been an increase in violence in prisons. Over the last six years violence perpetrated by prisoners on other prisoners or on prison officers has not only been rising but has been doing so at an accelerating rate. In the last year alone they increased by a quarter. There were 107 suicides by prisoners in the last year, double the figure six years ago.

Meanwhile the number of prison officers has fallen from 25,000 to 18,000 over the same period. It was in protest at the increased violence in prisons and the fact that there are so many fewer officers to deal with it, that 10,000 of them ‘walked out’ of their jobs earlier this week in defiance of a legal ban on their taking strike action. They talked of a ‘meltdown’ in the system. A court injunction was needed to force them back to work.

Their inability to keep control of prisons came into sharp relief a couple of days later when the press was full of pictures posted on Facebook by prisoners at Guys Marsh prison in Dorset. They showed them having what looked like a party, with plenty of booze, drugs, steak dinners, and wads of twenty-pound notes hanging about their cells which were full of high-tech gear, much of it supposedly banned. A year ago the prison inspectorate had said the prison was out of control and it still seems to be so. The images sparked outrage among many politicians, including the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, who said: ‘Prison is supposed to be about rehabilitation and paying for the crime you have committed, and not look like you are on a Club 18-30 holiday’.

The government claims to be trying to get on top of what it now admits is a crisis. A white paper published a few weeks ago promises a £1.3bn budget to close dilapidated prisons and build new ones with 10,000 places. It has also promised an extra £100m to recruit 2,500 more officers. And it is exploring the use of new satellite-tracking tags to enable more prisoners to be released.

But few think this will be enough. Among the sceptics is the former justice secretary, Michael Gove, who was sacked by Theresa May. When he was in office he set out his stall as a reformer. He argued that the deprivation of liberty was sufficient punishment of criminals and that the core responsibility of prisons beyond helping keep the public safe was to rehabilitate prisoners so that reoffending rates would fall. He believed that prisons should not be harsher places to live than they need be  - in contrast, it would seem, to his successor, Liz Truss, who wrote some years ago that prisons should be ‘tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable’.

In a lecture this week Mr Gove admitted that he had ‘ducked’ the issue of reducing prison numbers when he was in office, but argued that only by reducing those numbers could prisons have any hope of reducing violence and rehabilitating prisoners. He said: ‘We send too many people to prison. And of those who deserve to be in custody, many, but certainly not all, are sent there for too long.’ He added: ‘We spend hundreds of thousands keeping these individuals detained under state control. We govern who they see and what they do, what they learn and how they work … and after all that they go on to offend again. Now that really is criminal.’

For many people, however, the idea of sending fewer people to prison or reducing the length of their sentences is quite simply wrong. Their argument runs along these lines. Only by depriving people of their liberty are they truly punished. To allow people convicted of non-violent crimes to ‘get away’ with doing community service such as picking up litter and the like, rather than being banged up as they would be now, is tantamount to not punishing them at all. And ‘prison works’ because if criminals are inside they can’t commit further crimes outside.

The logic of this position, however, is that if we are to stop the prison system from meltdown with yet more violence in them and more cases of the Guys Marsh ‘holiday camp’, then we shall have to spend much more on the system. Already it costs around £36,000 a year to keep someone in prison. If we want to keep the same number of criminals behind bars without the whole system breaking apart, then we can’t do it on the cheap.

So who’s right? Should we divert scarce taxpayers’ money from other public services to the prisons in order to keep so many people locked up, or should we rethink our attitude to criminal justice and aim to incarcerate far fewer?

What’s your view? Let us know.

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