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Our prisons are a national disgrace Boris Johnson's pledge to lock up yet more vulnerable offenders treats the vulnerable as political pawns

Boris Johnson visits Leeds Prison. Credit: Jon Super - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Boris Johnson visits Leeds Prison. Credit: Jon Super - WPA Pool/Getty Images

December 2, 2019   6 mins

In 1773, a wealthy businessman named John Howard, appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, was distressed to discover the barbaric treatment of inmates in his county jail. So he set off two years later on a fact-finding tour of prisons, travelling about 50,000 miles, mainly on horseback, on seven big trips around Britain and Europe. He was left sickened by the squalid sights and hideous stench confronting him in filthy cells stuffed with demoralised prisoners, many held for petty crimes, in shoddy buildings barely fit for animals. The best he found were in Holland, clean and calm; among the worst were infamous English prisons, such as Newgate.

Perhaps we have progressed less than we like to think over the ensuing centuries. Our prisons currently hold more people than those elsewhere in Western Europe. The Netherlands, among other nations, has found that big reductions in incarceration rates makes little difference to crime levels, while freeing up more cash to challenge underlying social problems.

On his trips, Howard discovered prisoners cooped in cells all day; today, many are still locked up almost round the clock. His legacy led to pioneering prison legislation and building of hygienic new units with single cells — yet now many inmates must still eat, sleep and defecate confined in cramped, shared rooms.

Our prisons are a national disgrace. We have a motley collection of 135 institutions crowded with often-damaged individuals who are being warehoused, either temporarily or permanently, out of sight from the rest of us. Many inmates have chaotic backgrounds, mental health conditions or learning disabilities. Most are detained for non-violent offences. Yet they are stuffed in places where violence is rife, drug use routine, suicide rates rising and self-harm running at horrific levels. Few of their fellow citizens seem to care what goes on behind the barbed wire and high walls, yet even the chief inspector of prisons warns they have “appalling living conditions” and “lack access to meaningful rehabilitative activity”.

Now there is fresh focus on the prison system after another terrorist attack — and this time by a jihadist fanatic who exploited efforts to help offenders back into the community. Usman Khan was freed under licence a year ago, seven years into a jail term for joining a bomb plot. He killed two young Cambridge graduates, Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt, who were filled with benevolent compassion for those less fortunate and attending an event run by a prison-based education project.

To underscore the complexities of these issues, those who thwarted Khan with such bravery included a man guilty of the most sickening murder of a young disabled woman, who was out on day release. “He is not a hero,” said one relative of the victim.

Most politicians know prison does not work, except as cruel punishment, given that recidivism rates run at almost 50% after one year — a rate significantly worse than in those nations which incarcerate fewer and focus instead on fixing distresses that can drive people to crime. Obviously the public must be kept safe, but a succession of Tory justice ministers have admitted that our wider incarceration policies have failed; one even said the system has become an unsustainable waste of money. Yet despite the prison population running at near-record levels, Boris Johnson has reverted to the jaded old narrative of trying to look tough on crime and demanding even more people are locked up in this atrocious system — as seen again of the weekend.

So the Conservative election manifesto may be slim, but it still finds room for a barrage of populist stunts on law and order. Prominent among them is the creation of another 10,000 prison places, frittering away billions to add another 12% to prison capacity. There will be life without parole for child murderers, which takes away a judge’s ability to show the slightest mercy for, say, a severely depressed mother who kills her baby. There is a pledge to double maximum sentences for assaults on workers in the emergency services, although it is only 14 months since the last doubling of punishment for this offence. More stop and search, fresh action on knife crime (although prison sentences for possession have doubled in length over a decade) and yes, even that hoary old chestnut of ‘tougher’ community sentences.

This all smacks of sad throwback to the days of Tony Blair, whose desperation to shore up his right flank led to the absurdity of 28 criminal justice bills in 13 years of government and one new offence added to the statute book for every day in office.

There is a reason Johnson brushed aside the pleas of one grieving parent not to exploit his son’s death for political capital and instantly demanded that terrorists should no longer be eligible for early release as the blame game erupted. For law and order is  a key part of his strategy to tilt his party towards those who voted Brexit, often in traditional Labour heartlands of the Midlands and North. It fits with evidence that asking people if killers should be hanged or crooks whipped was among the best indicators of how someone voted in the referendum. More than half of Leave voters and Tory members back restoration of the death penalty.

These socially conservative, hardline attitudes highlight why Johnson has resorted to tired old tropes — and why Priti Patel, who backed the death penalty herself until recently, was appointed Home Secretary to re-assure these key voters. It explains why Justice Secretary Robert Buckland was over-ruled when trying to resist another pointless law on assaulting emergency workers created to please the police. And why Buckland had to dump progressive plans drawn up by his predecessor, David Gauke, to follow Scotland’s lead in scrapping short sentences, which simply destroy any stability in an offender’s life and have the highest rates of recidivism. So we carry on disrupting the lives of 10,000 people a year by pointlessly sending them to prison for less than a month.

Johnson’s calculating stance corrodes his claim to be a One Nation Conservative. He is exploiting the misfortunes of vulnerable people — and indeed, of taxpayers forced to stump up £41,136 a year for each person kept behind bars. Only three months ago, the Ministry of Justice was predicting the prison population would fall slightly over the next five years. The House of Commons justice committee, chaired by Tory MP Bob Neill, last month slammed “policy by press notice” when warning the prison system in England and Wales was in an “appalling” crisis, lacking any decency or security. Sentence inflation due to headline-grabbing stunts has seen average custodial terms surge from 13.3 months to 17.3 months over a decade.

Prisons pick up the pieces from societal failure. Some violent and persistent crooks deserve to be in jail, of course, along with those set on jihadist terror — although even they can change their ways. But more than a quarter of inmates are from ethnic minorities, indicating wider structural racism.at least one-third have a learning disability, highlighting the dreadful lack of community support and crumbling social care system. Almost two-thirds have a reading age of 11 or lower, underscoring the scale of school failures and impact of family breakdown.

Seven in ten jailed men have mental health issues while women are at least six times more likely to display symptoms of psychosis than in the general public, more signs of the dire state of mental health care. I have also come across distressing cases of autistic people, their needs ignored or misunderstood by the authorities, ending up behind bars although this only intensifies their stress.

Yet once again we see self-serving politicians using such people as political pawns. This is a shame since some Tory justice secretaries from differing wings of the party — Ken Clarke, Michael Gove and Gauke — understood the urgent need for reform. They realised it is tougher to force citizens to confront demons of addiction, mental health struggles and educational failure than to leave them stoned all day in cells watching television.

Many conservatives in the United States have also come to see it makes no sense to keep locking up rising numbers of damaged or vulnerable citizens — whether on fiscal, humane, redemptive or criminal justice terms. I even took Gove to Texas for a BBC Panorama documentary examining the ‘Right-on-Crime’ movement that has swept the Republican party, prioritising rehabilitation over punishment and attempting to close the revolving door of imprisonment.

No such luck in Britain. Tory politicians just keep playing to the gallery regardless of the evidence and judges are forced to send people to prison for longer and longer sentences, filling up the cells with an ageing as well as expanding population. It is, of course, even harder to assess and monitor the small number of jailed people like Khan — reportedly numbering about 220 — amid such chaos.

The sad truth is many of the issues identified by John Howard back in the 18th century remain valid today: overcrowded cells, squalid conditions, poor healthcare, outbreaks of violence and lingering boredom. Yet now people are handed longer sentences, many prisons are swamped by drugs and we have made big leaps in understanding human psychology.

Our greatest prison reformer wrote in his book, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, that “those gentlemen who, when they are told of the misery which our prisoners suffer, content themselves with saying ‘let them take care to keep out…’, forget the vicissitudes of human affairs; the unexpected changes to which men are liable”. Clearly human nature remains the same.

The abject state of our bursting prisons still shames our nation — yet once again our leaders focus only on building more holding pens for vulnerable human beings rather than tackling the problems that can lead damaged people into entanglement with the criminal justice system.

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.


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