When we take an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to the U.K’s prison system, we all lose.
46% of all prisoners reoffend within a year of their release, with this number rising to 60% of all prisoners sentenced to less than a year. It is estimated that this recidivism costs the U.K public up to £13bn a year according to the National Audit Office. Re-offending is expensive, as the police, the courts, and the emergency services all have high costs. This shows two things; first, that the public are paying for the prisons system’s inability to properly rehabilitate prisoners, and secondly, that prisons aren’t keeping the public safe from further crime. Rehabilitation and retribution are the mutually inclusive concrete that give prisons meaning. They are the literal bricks and mortar of our justice system. So if the public is being kept no safer and prisoners aren’t being given a fair chance, should we rebuild prisons altogether?
Prisons stand as landmarks of the deeper fault-lines within U.K society. They are manifestations of our racially charged criminal justice system, the effects of jarring austerity cuts, and how poverty is increasing while social mobility is decreasing for many. Yet considering how so few of us will actually need their services, as well as their obvious intended isolation from the public, you’d be forgiven for not mapping the exact domino effect failing prisons have on society.
Still, the U.K’s prison system is a sour cocktail of systemic failures. These include overcrowding, understaffing, increasing violence, and poor living conditions. However, therein lies another reason for the public’s apathy – discussing prison reform at a senior level requires a lot of political introspection so it rarely features as the flavour du jour on the political agenda. Before ex-PM David Cameron gave a speech solely on the state of U.K prisons, no other prime minister had done so for over 20 years. And yet the U.K’s prison population in England and Wales is among the highest in Western Europe, rising by just over 90% between 1990 and 2015, with 146 prisoners for each 100,000 people in the general population.
Like everything these days, one solution being offered is privatisation. However the benefits of privatising our prison system are unclear. Limited privatisation began in 1992 and was another notably controversial policy of Margaret Thatcher with 15% of our current prison population ‘going private’. With the government favouring harsher sentences and less money going around because of austerity, you can see why some may encourage a private system. The Ministry of Justice in 2011 stated that ‘competition in offender services has been shown to be effective at encouraging the management and workforces of existing and future providers to improve services and deliver more innovative models of service delivery’ – which is just political speak for ‘more money = better prisons’. However, equating a lack of overall expenditure with an ailing prison system would be confusing cause and effect. In the 1970s, there was a serious issue with overcrowding, riots, and poor living conditions when expenditure overall was high and prison staff numbers were stable. What’s more, the U.K’s private prisons have mixed performances, with no consistency in ‘better’ standards and some even experiencing serious scandals. They experience the same issues with staffing as staff numbers have fallen by a quarter in the past five years. Because of this, prisoners are left in their cells for up to 23 hours a day whilst the prisons then sizzle with boredom, frustration, and violence. Not to mention that if private prisons require prisoners for their income, this does little to incentivise the huge rate of reoffending mentioned.
Unpicking the offering of a private system shows that the issue of our prisons now is more cultural than fiscal: the U.K is intently hooked on a culture of incarceration. Taking a step back from this to properly focus on prevention would improve issues with overcrowding in the short term and significantly reduce the costs mentioned in the long term. Achieving this comes from establishing ingrained education and training programmes in prisons that not only empower prisoners to change their lives, but gives them the tools to do so. Some educational initiatives are being carried out now, however they are largely left to the will of the prison’s governor and lack serious funding. Since recidivism costs U.K society so much, but rehabilitation methods prove effective in its reduction, a lack of funding for rehabilitation programs therefore seems inexcusable. Harsher sentencing in an era of austerity is self-defeating; the more people that are put away, the less money there is to help them re-establish themselves in society afterwards and more that the state will have to pay for their re-offences later on as a result.
Mainstreaming programmes that up-skill prisoners whilst serving time, and even employ them after leaving, have proven successful elsewhere in the world. In Illinois, USA around 40,000 ex-prisoners return to the state with 20,000 returning to Chicago alone. Chicago-based organisation Cleanslate provides transitional jobs in neighbourhood projects from pavement sweeping to snow removal, landscaping, garbage cleanup and graffiti removal, all for which they’re paid minimum wage. 450 jobs are offered a year and actively counters rates of re-offending on the ground. The integration of education and training in and around prison practices is proven and necessary.
Rethinking what prisons are for taps into a wider debate over ways justice should actually be achieved. Yet there is never one solution to an unending number of unique problems. Why then is locking people away being used as the single method to addressing a multitude of crimes? On the extreme end, stripping murders, rapists, and other serious offenders of their right to society makes sense. But what about cases with a lot more nuance? What about a young person who’s encouraged to steal, because their parents’ wages can never guarantee that there’s food on the table? Fewer people like this should be put away, and those that do should be given a serious method to turn their life around.
The current system now means you’re more than being sentenced to prison, you’re being sentenced to a life that’s impossible to rebuild afterwards. And in being stripped of your access to society, you’re equally being stripped of a fair chance to start again after doing your time. No wonder so many re-offend. Locking people away isn’t going to change their reality on the outside; empowering them through effective rehabilitation can break the chain of societal issues that was entrapping them to begin with.
For a country that prides itself on its rule of law, we need to not just address who is above or below the law, but also better address what comes after it takes effect.