« | Home | »

Blunt Instruments


The justice secretary, Liz Truss, announced last week that four new ‘super prisons’ would be built in England and Wales, to hold five thousand prisoners. Last month, Truss gave a speech rebuffing calls to reduce the prison population. She acknowledged that prisons are overcrowded, failing and violent, but said that halving the population would endanger the public – so the focus is to be on getting the ‘right resources, the right workforce, the right buildings and the right regimes to reform offenders and turn their lives around’. Right, right, right, right, to turn around those who have done wrong. But if you turn right four times, you end up facing the same direction. And for all the evidence against it, prison will remain the central cog in our criminal justice system, around which the rest spins.

The speech was followed by the publication of the Prisons and Courts Bill, which places reform and rehabilitation on a statutory footing as the goal prisons must aim at, second only to protecting the public. This is meant to be a step towards transforming prisons from places of ‘violence and despair to places of self-improvement and hope’. But hope is always looking to the future; its better tomorrow never has to arrive.

As for the present: suicides among inmates are the highest they’ve been since records began forty years ago, and the rate at which they’re increasing is accelerating. Self-harm has gone up 52 per cent in the last two years. Inspection reports show that violence is up, safety is down, there aren’t enough staff and there isn’t enough for prisoners to do. Twenty thousand people – a quarter of the prison population – share cells built for fewer people; the overcrowded space includes an open toilet. Public sector prisons are running with three-quarters of the frontline staff they had six years ago. A recruitment drive is underway. But assaults on staff have risen steeply, and 13.5 per cent of those who started between 2014 and 2015 quit within twelve months.

Since 1993, the prison population has soared by 40,000, or 90 per cent. The Prisons and Courts Bill and Truss’s periodic statements are attempts to restore calm: the crisis is a crisis, but it’s in hand, improvement is on its way. And don’t forget just how bad the people in prison are – guilty of robbery, domestic abuse and sexual violence. If you want to reduce the prison population, you can’t also be serious about violence against women or child abuse. Asked to pick a side, who would choose the perpetrator over the victim? The false choice may be seductive, but nothing about crime is as neat as prison would have it.

Many of those in jail experience complex and chronic social exclusion, and have suffered as well as inflicted real harm. In the face of such complexity, prison, whether experienced as respite or torture (perhaps both), cannot be thought of as rehabilitation.

From any perspective, reducing the prison population has to be the priority – only then can it possibly work (therapeutic prisons do exist) for those who remain inside. The means of doing this are obvious and can be done carefully (reducing sentence inflation and investing in cheaper and more effective interventions in the community): that isn’t the problem. Until the government is prepared to have a proper conversation, it will continue to invest in this bluntest of instruments, wilfully blind to the violence of its failings. ‘You shouldn’t do this job for long,’ Nick Hardwick said in 2016, when he stepped down as chief inspector of prisons, ‘because you get used to things you shouldn’t.’


  1. IPFreely says:

    “They have to pay for their crimes… ” has been the clarion call of the right ever since the days of public hanging and flogging. Why not send some experts to Sweden to look at their conditions and compare the figures for jail sentences with the UK, Sweden and Holland?

    • rolandino says:

      Because this would be:
      – Logical
      – Sensible
      – Sensitive
      – Smart

      All of which don’t play too well with the Daily Mail, Telegraph and quite often the Times. And our mainstream politicians currently are insane.

    • dnmurphy says:

      Why, do you know something you are not letting on? Some facts and figures would be useful to this discussion

      • dnmurphy says:

        As far as I can see at a quick glance, UK incarceration rates are three times that of Sweden, but crime rates are roughly the same

  2. John Cowan says:

    In the wake of Brexit, can we expect to see the return of the death penalty? The newspapers should certainly be in favor, and so should the politicians. Unlike in the U.S., the expense would be minimal: Britain used to be very proud of its ability to go from sentencing to hanging in three weeks, and every prisoner executed is one less in a cell.

    • thebears says:

      Happily we remain (for the moment) in the European Convention on Human Rights, as this is a wholly seperate treaty arrangement to the EU (and with a much wider membership). Protocol 6 forbids the death penalty in peace time and protocol 13 forbids it altogether.

      Russia has not ratified protocol 6 and Russia and Azerbaijan have not signed protocol 13. Protocol 13 is also unratified by Armenia. Throw in non-signatories to the ECHR, like Belarus, and this remains a very small group of countries allowing the death penalty, though sadly Turkey may be looking at ways to get round protocols 6 and 13 presently.

      ECHR membership may well be on Theresa May’s hitlist post 2020; this would be a shockingly retrograde step, but one that seems popular on the Tory right, presumably primarily because the convention has the word “European” in it.

  3. robin bale says:

    Almost certainly it is on her list and has been since she was Home Secretary; as you say, despite the fact that it has no connection with the EU.Tories can’t help themselves.

  4. dnmurphy says:

    “From any perspective, reducing the prison population has to be the priority”

    No, protecting the law-abiding public from thugs is the priority and should be. After that reducing the crime rate is the next – whether that means more prisons, different punishments, better social care and rehabilitation needs to be worked out – but protecting te public from criminal things is the first prirority

    • Bob Beck says:

      Like the man said: those to whom evil is done, do evil in return. Any system set up simply to punish “criminal thugs” will invariably produce more of them.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • whisperit on When More Means Less: This has been the main impetus behind changes in mental health provision for some time. In my last job as a mental health nurse, I began by visiting i...
    • David Sharp on Don’t pretend you can’t see us: A good article. The gilets jaunes "have given me back my pride in being French," said the historian-sociologist Emmanuel Todd during an excellent t...
    • kirkmc on Don’t pretend you can’t see us: It's important to understand the context of diesel cars in France. For decades, the French government promoted their use, through much lower taxes on ...
    • Andrew McGettigan on Carlsen’s Fortress: To provide a little more detail for the diagram. The position is taken before White's 67th move. 67 Bd5-c4 would keep the black knight from e2 (and fr...
    • Graucho on Out of Stock: From the late sixties onwards I have witnessed the effects of cannabis smoking on any number of friends, acquaintances and loved ones. At best I have ...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive