Perhaps it could be a two-part question set for those taking a “citizenship test” to prove that they know about British values before getting a passport (or an ID card). How big is the prison population and what distinguishes the country’s record in jailing people? Answer: the prison population in England and Wales has risen to a record high of 82,006 - 21 places short of capacity; nowhere in Western Europe jails more of its population than England and Wales, where about 147 people per 100,000 are in prison.
New Labour has presided over a rise of more than one third in prison numbers since 1997. When it first came into government, the prison population was 60,131. The increase is not surprising since during the same period, the state has created more than 3,000 new criminal offences and ministers have ratcheted up the rhetoric on crime to appease the middle-class law-and-order brigade. More than half of prisoners serve less than six months and about one in five prisoners is being held on remand.
While new social house building has slumped under New Labour, some 17,000 extra prison spaces have been created. A further 8,000 are planned. It is clear where the government’s priorities lie. But like most of this government’s policies, they are simply not working. So after years of urging courts to jail anyone and everyone, justice secretary Jack Straw today calls on magistrates to send fewer people to prison – presumably until the prison building programme can catch up.
The causes of crime are complex but in a period of comparative prosperity it is clear that significant numbers of people remain excluded and alienated from mainstream consumer society. So in 2006, the second biggest group sentenced to prison were convicted of drugs offences and about 8,500 of burglary. Almost half of prisoners ran away as a child - compared to 11% of the general population. About one in three female and half of male prisoners were excluded from school and a majority have no qualifications. Less than 5% of the general population have two or more mental disorders, compared to 72% of male and 70% of female sentenced prisoners.
Locking up people in overcrowded prisons as a punishment and a supposed deterrent simply doesn’t work. Re-offending rates among offenders are high - about two thirds are reconvicted within two years of release. Among men aged 18-21 the rate is about three quarters. Over half of offenders receive no training. And only one in five of prisoners exceed the standards expected of an 11 year old in writing. Nearly one in three will not have somewhere to live upon release. A majority of prisoners will have no job to go to and six out of 10 employers automatically exclude those with a criminal record.
The prison system reflects the class divided and unequal society we live in, where the political elites play to the gallery with their crude divisions of people into “good” and “evil”. Prison is viewed, in a simple, medieval way, as a means of inflicting punishment, of retribution rather than a possible route to rehabilitation and integration.
Globalised capitalist society has destroyed meaningful, well-paid jobs in many areas of the country, especially for men, adding to the sense of social exclusion. Those numbers will increase as economic recession bites, adding to the tendency to offend. In framing alternatives to New Labour’s über-competitive society, we must rethink the whole approach to offending and prison to create a system that reflects the society we would like to have, and not the one that Straw presides over.
AWTW communications editor