Thursday, August 31, 2006

Prison isn’t working

One statistic New Labour is no doubt proud of is the record number of people in prison. On August 29, the prison population in England and Wales reached 79,247, an all-time high. The absolute maximum the system can hold is 79,000. The total in jail represents a staggering 33% rise since 1997, when New Labour first came into office.

Even prison officers are worried about what they describe as critical levels of overcrowding and the increased risk of violence. Brian Caton, the head of the Prison Officers Association, said: "Prison officers know about violence and have seen it escalate in the last 12 months. I think we are in danger of all sorts of disruption. You can feel it in the air."

The sharp rise in the prison population is in part driven by the harsher action against ex-prisoners who breach their release terms. Home Office figures show that the number of offenders who have been recalled to custody has risen by 350% in four years and now accounts for 11% of the prison population in England and Wales.

All these brutal statistics confirm that locking people up in Britain is simply a form of state retribution. The penal system has little in common with ideas of rehabilitation which prison reformers have advocated for more than a century. In any case, rehabilitation is not possible when prisons are full to bursting and offenders are locked in their cells for long periods.

New Labour’s answer? Well, it has introduced at least 300 new criminal offence. Now the charming Home Secretary, John Reid, is planning to build 8,000 new prison places! When you build a new road to ease traffic, it too quickly becomes congested. Build new prisons and they will fill up as quickly as they come on stream.

What is self-evident is that the prison and criminal justice systems actually produce criminals rather than addressing or tackling the causes of criminality. The government would rather spend an average of £40,000 a year keeping someone locked up than face up to the root causes. New Labour has reduced the issue to one of "crime management", adopting an authoritarian law-and-order mantra. But in practice, the government’s crime and punishment approach is simply not working.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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