There is a straightforward reason why prisons are full to bursting – and it’s nothing to do with the crime rate. In fact, the level of crime has been stable or has even fallen since 1993 when 45,000 people were in prison. What has almost doubled the prison population to a record 80,000 is New Labour’s determination to lock up more people for petty offences and to use jails to house people with serious mental health and drug addiction problems. As a result, England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe at 148 per 100,000 of the population compared with France where the rate is 85 per 100,000 and Germany 94 per 100,000. Many are sitting out their sentences in a shared cell, eating, sleeping and using the toilet in the same small space as another person up to 23 hours a day. Overcrowding means rehabilitation programmes are cut to a minimum and those with health problems are given less and less support. And when people leave prison, finding somewhere to live is increasingly difficult. The outcome is predictable. The reoffending rate after prison has risen from 51% in 1992 to 67%.
Many prisoners have mental health problems. 72% of male and 70% of female sentenced prisoners suffer from two or more mental health disorders. One in five prisoners have four of the five major mental health disorders. A significant number of prisoners suffer from a psychotic disorder. Seven per cent of male and 14% of female sentenced prisoners have a psychotic disorder; 14 and 23 times the level in the general population. In 2005, 597 out of every 1,000 women and 50 out of every 1,000 men harmed themselves while in prison. Research suggests that prisoners are twice as likely to be refused treatment for mental health problems inside prison than outside. How do people with several mental health difficulties end up in prison anyway? The reason is that prisons have become a substitute for a failed, under-resourced, "care in the community" programme. As the Prison Reform Trust says: "Mental health policy on care in the community has disintegrated into a lack of practical support and neglect. Prisons have had to fill up with petty offenders with complex mental health needs to take up the slack… If you had to invent a way to deepen mental health problems and create a health crisis, an overcrowded prison, and particularly the bleak isolation of its segregation unit, would be it."
Another vulnerable group New Labour takes pleasure in locking up is children, a scandal which prompted the angry resignation of Professor Rod Morgan as chairman of the Youth Justice Board last week. One of New Labour’s first pieces of legislation was the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998, which gave the Home Secretary power to lower the age of detention to 10 years old. As a result, the number of children under 18 locked up in England and Wales has more than doubled over the last ten years. Some 75% of those held in young offenders' institutions have not attended school beyond the age of 13. The "education" they receive in prison does not bear thinking about. Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which has led a campaign to end the policy of jailing children, says: "It is intolerable that children in prison are being denied even the most basic needs such as a shower, fresh air and exercise and a phone call to their parents. How can children be expected to learn how to behave when they are treated so appallingly - it is storing up trouble for the future and inevitably the suffering of the children results in suffering to the rest of us when they are released." Many children are in prison for breaking civil Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, thereby turning themselves into criminals at a stroke. If you thought any of this merited an official rethink, you would be utterly wrong. Home Secretary John Reid is scouring the world for prison ships to take the overflow. The madness continues.
Paul Feldman, communications editor