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Pentonville Stays Open


The head of the Prison and Probation Service announced last week that plans to close old prisons are being put on hold because of an unexpected spike in the population; the increase looks set to continue over the next few years. The news was almost immediately displaced by a ‘disturbance’ at HMP Long Lartin in Worcestershire, one of the eight high secure prisons in England and Wales.

Eighty men, most of them serving life sentences, took over a wing, attacking staff with pool balls; the specialist Tornado riot team was sent in; order was restored and the damage assessed. Such events are rare in the high secure estate because it’s better resourced than its medium and low secure counterparts. Of course a riot makes the news. But it plays into the one-dimensional fantasies we have of prison: staff and prisoners swapping roles as thugs and victims, abuse of the oppressed, powder kegs of danger.

The news that old prisons are going to remain in use is less exciting, but more significant. The Victorian jails close to city centres – including Pentonville, the most frequently touted as not fit for purpose, and Wormwood Scrubs – serve the courts and so have the highest ‘churn’, the numbers that pass through their gates over days, months, years. They also tend to be the grimmest. Populations are in the region of a 1000 men, and when conditions slip, what’s revealed is stark. It will take time to unpack why the population is going up. The probation service – no longer a single body since the coalition’s Transforming Rehabilitation agenda had its way with it – is probably recalling more people to custody. There’ll be plenty of other reasons, too, unsurprising if we accept the maxim that prisons are an index to social health. All need attention, but are unlikely to capture it the way riots do.

The Prison Governors Association has called for the release of some prisoners serving sentences shorter than 12 months, to alleviate overcrowding. Most of them are in the old prisons. And many of them will soon be back: their reoffending rates sit stubbornly between 40 and 70 per cent, depending on who and what you’re measuring. The government has shown no sign of listening to the PGA.

The key architectural innovation of Victorian prisons was the cell, measuring 13 feet by 7 by 9 high, designed to fit with the penal philosophy of the time: deprivation as the cure for criminality, restoring lost souls to God and the state. Victorian cells, until last week slated for closure, will remain in use; most now hold two people not one. Like previous generations, we look set to keep talking of redemption (secularised as rehabilitation) while inflicting punishment, maintaining a system in which intermittent riots scare and thrill us, and we largely ignore the chronic neglect.


  1. richard.lomax2010@gmail.com says:

    The Justice System needs a complete overhaul. Trial process, sentencing, access to justice.

    We imprison146 per 100,000 population. For Germany the figure is 78 per 100,000. The annual cost of keeping someone in prison is about £40,000. If we halved our prison population (to match German rates) we’d be saving about one and a half thousand million pounds each year. If you take off enough to provide alternative community sentences and training courses, you’d still have more than enough to establish the national network of legal advice centres staffed by salaried lawyers recommended by Lord Rushcliffe in May 1945.

    Why so many in prison? Adversarial justice (a Whig innovation; an antidote to Judge Jeffreys) creates a truth-deficit.
    ‘In England… the well-meaning reforms of the eighteenth century that resulted in adversary trial had the effect of perpetuating the central blunder of the inherited system: the failure to develop institutions and procedures of criminal investigation and trial that would be responsible for and capable of seeking the truth.’
    The Origins of Adversary Trial John H Langbein OUP 2003.
    Because it convicts a low proportion of offenders, the system administers harsher punishments to maintain the deterrent effect.

    In the mid-eighteenth century Cesare Beccaria condemned excessive punishment. Jeremy Bentham complained that the justice system operated mostly for the benefit of ‘Judge and Co’. Both wished for a system where offenders were swiftly and efficiently convicted and punished as leniently as possible. Writing in the 1960s in Chicago Gary Becker reformulated their teaching as marginal deterrence theory. According to this there is an inverse relationship between conviction rates and punishment. It is a hallmark, he says of an inefficient criminal justice system (with a low apprehension and conviction rate) that it has to administer severe punishments to maintain its deterrent effect. Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach,” Journal of Political Economy 76 (1968)

    But economic theory does not explain everything. Most surprisingly the causes of crime include environmental pollution and lead poisoning. Lead was introduced into petrol by Standard Oil and General Motors who covered up its adverse effect on mental health. It has now mostly gone from petrol and water supply. Charts showing its diminished use are reflected in crime reduction rates.

    To its credit New Labour did get tough on child poverty. But it never challenged the entrenched interests – lawyers, judges, private companies running our overcrowded gaols – who profit from the inherent inefficiencies of an antiquated system that denies justice to so many.

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