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.’