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What prisons teach us about democracy Treat people like dirt, and they'll behave like dirt

Britain's prisons are criminal. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

Britain's prisons are criminal. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty


September 4, 2023   6 mins

Andrea Albutt has been a dedicated public servant for almost four decades who worked as a military nurse and ran four prisons.  But after eight years as president of the Prison Governors Association, she despairs of the crumbling institutions, overwhelmed staff and record-breaking rises in violence, suicide, and self-harm inside cells. So when invited to speak to MPs at Westminster, she took advantage of her looming retirement to savage the collapse of the prison system under their custody.

Albutt blasted their populist gimmicks, short-term stunts, botched spending cuts and the revolving door of 11 justice secretaries since the Tories took office in 2010, who “achieved nothing but decline” in the functioning of her sector. Her conclusion to the all-party group on penal affairs was stark: that politicians are failing inmates, staff and the wider public as they cram more and more people into “warehouses of despair, danger and degradation”.

It was a startlingly honest appraisal of how inadequate politicians played tribal games at the expense of a public service. As she ran through the failures of individual ministers, the Tories were, inevitably, at the receiving end. Yet she was scathing, too, about the Imprisonment for Public Protection regime, a callous legacy of New Labour that has left people with comparatively short sentences still behind bars 20 years later, despite the ditching of the policy more than a decade ago.

The core issue behind Albutt’s outburst is the soaring prison population, which has doubled since she was born 56 years ago. Our incarceration rates became the highest in Western Europe before the turn of the century, then kept on rising. Now we have 87,063 prisoners in England and Wales — and are predicted to hit 100,000 by the end of this decade. Each inmate costs an average of £47,000 a year, slightly more than the fees for Eton. Yet Albutt accused politicians of deceiving the public by promoting a myth that locking up more and more people for steadily longer terms makes society safer. “It’s a lie,” she said bluntly. “Prison does not work.”

Few voters really care about prisons, of course, nor will they shed any tears for convicts crammed into squalid cells. But we should heed Albutt’s warning as crime rises up the political agenda, both parties viewing it as an issue that could sway key voters in swing seats. The Government just delivered a raft of law and order pledges in its ‘crime week’, the latest in a series of dismal themed policy drives in a bid to win back support. Labour responded that ministers have lost control — a point underlined by the home secretary’s suggestion that police might like to tackle offences such as bike thefts and burglaries.

Yet while these politicians tussle to look tough, prisons expose how our democracy is floundering.  Sir Winston Churchill, who spent time in captivity during the Boer War, said treatment of criminals “is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country”. He argued forcefully against excessive use of sentencing, warning that it was hard to rehabilitate jailed convicts. He told the Commons during his brief time as home secretary “the first real principle which should guide anyone trying to establish a good system of prisons should be to prevent as many people as possible getting there at all”.

Westminster has failed to heed this advice. New Labour passed 28 criminal justice bills and put one new offence on the statute book for every day they were in office over 13 years. Then the Tories ramped up sentencing so that the average length of a prison sentence increased by 55% over the past decade. Austerity forced the police to spend more time picking up pieces of other crumbling public services such as mental health and social care, while the percentage of crimes leading to a charge crashed. Only days after Albutt spoke to parliament, the Met Police chief Mark Rowley said his officers would no longer attend mental health emergencies.

But these problems run deep in our society. We know, for instance, that many prisoners come from broken families or chaotic backgrounds. We know they often struggle with issues such as addiction, autism, illiteracy, mental illness or learning disabilities. The House of Commons Justice Committee found seven in 10 prisoners may have mental health needs and that these can worsen behind bars: these MPs admitted prison can be “inappropriate” and “inhumane” for those with most severe psychological problems.

Nor does this swamped, unloved system curb reoffending. Short sentences are especially damaging with 55% of those locked up for less than 12 months reoffending. During his stint as prisons minister, Rory Stewart dared to admit: “The best way of protecting the public is to significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the under 12-month prison population, because people on community sentences are less likely to re-offend than people put in prison.” Yet only Scotland has introduced a presumption against use of such sentences.

If rehabilitation doesn’t work, how about deterrence? This was exposed as another myth by the Sentencing Council of England and Wales, which published a landmark review last year. The authors pointed out that few offenders knew much about sentencing policies while criminal acts tend to be spontaneous, often driven by anger, drink, drugs, or mental health episodes. “We note that some have argued it is time to accept that sentence severity has no effect on the level of crime in society,” the study concludes drily.

These findings reinforce those of the Transform Justice think tank, which looked at assaults on health workers and police officers. Despite the penalty for these nasty crimes quadrupling over four years,, the number of recorded offences actually rose. “Most victims want the person who harmed them not to harm them or other people again,” said director Penelope Gibbs. “They don’t necessarily want their day in court or retribution. Unfortunately, more prison is unlikely to meet the needs of victims or reduce crime. A government that really cared about cutting crime, rather than simply winning headlines would reduce imprisonment.”

In the United States, even many conservatives have come to see that it makes no sense to keep locking up damaged citizens, whether on fiscal, redemptive, or simply criminal justice terms.  The “Right-on-Crime” movement, placing an emphasis on rehabilitation over punishment, started out in Texas before sweeping the Republican Party after both main parties agreed that locking up more and more people was a costly failure. This goes to show that even in such a divided country politicians can reach across the tribal chasm and shift the terms of public debate, leading to a dramatic 25% decline in prison populations since 2009.

As US advocates of reform have pointed out to me, it is far tougher to force people to change errant behaviour than simply to slam them into crowded cells. But Labour — driven again by Blairites — senses Tory vulnerability on crime and has stolen a lead on this issue in polls. The Tories by contrast think voters can be persuaded Labour is “soft” on crime under a former director of public prosecutions while latching onto an issue that unites both traditional Tories and new Red Wall recruits .

What makes this even more depressing is that an alternative approach has been proven to work in a nearby nation. Norway had even worse recidivism rates than Britain three decades ago, with seven in 10 prisoners reoffending within two years of release. It had a justice system like our own: built on the concept of deterrence with offenders given long sentences in grim institutions. But instead of blundering on with failure, their leaders boldly switched course. They were rewarded with the world’s lowest recidivism rate, which sees only one in five prisoners reoffending.

The key was to focus less on revenge and more on rehabilitation. Offenders lose their liberty but are given the chance to change their lives. Prisons tend to be small to break up violent cultures and dotted around the country to keep inmates close to their families. Cells are basic but have televisions, computers, fridges, and showers. They offer facilities such as yoga, saunas, music studios, tanning beds, fitness rooms, car workshops and cooking classes. Guards and prisoners enjoy barbecues and play sport together — and in some units, up to half the officers are women. Above all, there is an emphasis on study and work to develop skills in preparation for freedom — not abandonment in overcrowded cells.

Halden Prison, set in a forest 60 miles south of Oslo, has been labelled the most humane prison in the world although it is a maximum-security institution holding 250 men convicted of the worst crimes. It cost £138 million to build, winning a design award for its minimalist style and efforts to minimise stress. Inmates have appeared on reality television shows and released music under the label Criminal Records. There are no guns or barbed wire on display — although prisoners are still locked up in their rooms at night.

The legacy of such intense focus on rehabilitation is that Norway now has fewer than half the number of prisoners per capita as Britain. But Norway’s strategy is not just about treating prisoners well: it is about keeping people out of prison as far as possible. During its period of reform, prison sentences were reduced. Life sentences were abandoned with a 21 year maximum — although this can be extended in five-year increments if there is perceived danger.

Although the average cost per head of such prisons is significantly higher than our own, it is estimated that rehabilitated offenders save the state about £110,000 per person in terms of law enforcement costs and lower benefits. Crime comparisons are hard given differences in data collection, but the European Crime Index puts Norway comfortably in the top half of safest nations while the UK comes close to the bottom, just above Italy, Sweden and Belarus. Yet our leaders refuse to shift path, spending an immense £3.8bn to push another 20,000 people into more of these “warehouses of despair, danger and degredation”.

This failure by Westminster has a catastrophic impact on the rest of society. Politicians need to display some courage and admit that our prison system does not work, does not deter crime and does not provide value for money. “It’s really very simple,” said one prison warden in Norway. “Treat people like dirt and they’ll be dirt. Treat them like human beings and they’ll act like human beings.”


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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polidori redux
polidori redux
8 months ago

“Treat people like dirt, and they’ll behave like dirt”To get sent to jail for a substantial sentence in the UK usually means that you have committed many crimes over a long period of time: Harder than getting into Oxford.
You are already dirt.
Still, it”s amusing to hear such profound dinner party platitudes trotted out once again.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  polidori redux

You could turn that around and say that ‘those who behave like dirt, are dirt, and should be treated as dirt.’
I shall try that out at the next Quislington soirée I have the pleasure to attend.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
8 months ago

How many criminals ever show genuine remorse for their crimes: the torment, suffering, trauma not only of the victime but family and friends ? Very few. They normally say I have done my time and have no pity for the crippled victim or the person who suffers life long trauma. How many of those who undertook Nazi atrocities ever showed remorse? Yes remorse at losing the war, at being caught, losing money or or a few years in prison.

Greg Morrison
Greg Morrison
8 months ago
Reply to  polidori redux

I quite agree. It’s interesting to note that ‘social conservatives’ (or ‘traditional people’ or ‘non-PC people’ or ‘the Old School’ or ‘Christians’ – insert unfashionable group here) have been treated like dirt for over two decades now: by the MSM, the chattering classes, liberal elites, employers, the police, the courts, academia, etc, etc.
Very few of us, as far as I can tell, behave like dirt as a result.

However, a truth that the author and his type should note, is that treating people like dirt, whether in a prison or a political debate, nearly always ends in violence at some point, somewhere. Both prison riots and slave rebellions have plenty in common: but recidivist criminals are not repeat offenders because their prisons were not comfortable enough.

Chipoko
Chipoko
8 months ago
Reply to  polidori redux

They treated their victims like dirt!
Indeed, there is no apparent mention in this article of the victims whose fates resulted in these criminals being incarcerated in the first instance.
Cells are basic but have televisions, computers, fridges, and showers. They offer facilities such as yoga, saunas, music studios, tanning beds, fitness rooms, car workshops and cooking classes. Guards and prisoners enjoy barbecues and play sport together …
Mein Gott! I wonder what the victims and their families would say about such a sweetie-pie régime?

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
8 months ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Those who treat prisoners as dirt, become dirt themselves.

And those who de-humanise prisoners are de-humanising themselves.

polidori redux
polidori redux
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

liberal cliché

Apo State
Apo State
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Your view (and that of the author) perfectly illustrates Rob Henderson’s concept of “luxury beliefs”.
Victimizing someone is the very definition of “de-humanizing” them! If you’re worried about dehumanization, perhaps your argument would hold more weight if you prioritized the innocent over the guilty.
There is a MASSIVE difference between an ancient run-down, overcrowded prison, and the (veritable) country club that particular prison in Norway provides. While most of HM prisons probably need more maintenance, it is an unconscionable position to advocate providing a better environment for inmates than your society provides to its law abiding citizens — and at the lawful people’s expense, no less!
And although the author implies that all Norwegian prisons are as he describes, they are not: Anders Breivik has been in solitary confinement since 2012, and I’m quite sure he hasn’t seen the inside of a sauna in quite some time.
Finally, I agree that many prison systems need some crucial adjustments. Those with psychosis should not be in general population, and should be receiving as much treatment as we can manage; drug treatment should actually be mandatory for those with addiction; and we need a much longer and more involved release program, which slowly integrates inmates back into society by helping them to readjust with the guidance that they need. Then they can start to EARN back their rights, step by step, by proving that they are living a lawful life.
But even with all that, we cannot save many people from themselves, especially since the breakdown of the family.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
8 months ago

Elephant one;

Norway has the largest sovereign wealth fund on earth so can afford these gestures (although they’re having to trim their sails now so watch this space).

Elephant two;

Three quarters of the inmates come from the 3 Baltic republics (so all the staff have to be fluent in English to do their jobs – God bless freedom of movement).

Elephant three;

Three quarters of our crime is linked to drugs but our lovely liberals claim that their ‘right’ to take them is nobody else’s business. Lots of the inmates drug taking has led to the mental health problems.

Elephant four;

Look at US cities that don’t punish repeat offenders where all the shops are closing down because they can’t run their businesses due to the 24 hour crime.

Elephant five;

BBC programme (so it must be true) revealed researcher found that not one rehabilitation scheme currently in operation in the UK actually reduced re-offending rates but the Prison Service treated her like a whistle-blower and went for constructive dismissal.

Sex offenders in particular played along and took Group Therapy where they happily discussed their crimes in detail to the titillation of the others and got out early for showing willing. To reoffend.

George Venning
George Venning
8 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

You have overlooked an elephant of your own. Recidivism reduced from 70%+ to 20% amidst much lower overal crime rates – these are pretty big deals.
Elephant One. The article makes the point that Norway’s system is cheaper because it reduces re-offending and results in a smaller prison population.
Elephant Two. Fascinating but not obviously relevant.
Elephant Three: Genuinely cannot discern your point here – that some liberals are a bit hypocritical about their drug habits whilst others are genuinely impacted by their own drug use? Sure, OK. Is that not the case in Norway?
Elephant Four: Remind me, is the US penal system just like the Scandinavian one?
Elephant Five: So, you’re saying that we aren’t good at rehabiliitations programmes? Maybe we should look at systems that work. Like the one in Norway? No?

Last edited 8 months ago by George Venning
Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
8 months ago

I really don’t believe the true goal of the author is to reduce recidivism. While surely that is welcome, it’s more about the author’s moral lights as evidenced by the statement that there are no life sentences… Sorry, if I am to cede the power of violence to the state, there must be punishment, it’s a moral imperative for serious crimes. Otherwise, the mafia will flourish as the aggrieved find and pay for their own justice…

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago
Reply to  Matt Sylvestre

I’m totally on board with rehabilitation over punishment, but the end goal of a prison sentence is not necessarily crime prevention. It is punishment. I would support the Norway approach, as long as it works. We can be more humane, and focus on rehabilitation, but ultimately a prison sentence is punishment.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I used to be a lock them up and throw away the key, prison is to punish type but my attitudes have mellowed over the years. Seeing a mate go in a low level petty crook and come out a hardened drug dealer possibly started the change in thought, as did being mates with a screw, mates with a few others who served minor sentences and a having a cousin who is social worker and hearing the scarcely believable upbringings some of these lads had. Thatchers care in the community (a cost saving exercise dressed up as a humanitarian policy) threw thousands of people with minor mental health needs into the public where they couldn’t cope, and resulted in many ending up behind bars when they should never have been in that situation to begin with.
That isn’t to say I believe criminals should be out walking the streets, you still need to remove them from the public for a set time but much more should be done inside prisons to help them get their lives on track, with much more support once they leave. There’s no point doing rehab then kicking them back onto the street with nowhere to go, as they’ll simply end up back where they were before because that’s the only help they know.
There’ll always be a selection of prisoners who are beyond help, but I don’t think this applies to the bulk of them.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Social and economic liberals conspired to empty the booby hatches, it wasn’t just Fatcha. The ‘beyond help’ prisoners are probably a much larger group than you’re willing to admit. The poor have a much more reasonable attitude to malefactors, likely due to suffering most from their depredations. For Birrell and his ilk this is all theory (but more importantly an opportunity to make more money peddling middle class ‘solutions’ to problems his class causes or exacerbates).

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
8 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

In other words, working-class people are all punitive right-wingers.

Er, no, actually.

Stop assassinating Birrell’s character.

Stop accusing liberals of causing crime.

It’s caused by the cynicism and brutality of the tabloid outlook you so admire.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

The Krays were supported because they caught and punished people who undertook crimes on the manor. The punishment for burglary of a pensioners flat could be broken legs and left on the street overnight as told to me by builder from the Krays manor.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
8 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Crime is the solution to crime. UnHerd comments section is the best.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
8 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I don’t think he’s saying that. Of course vigilantism is wrong, but in certain circumstances it is welcomed by those who benefit.

The Krays were evil, but they dealt with local, petty crime because it was in their own criminal interests to do so, and the locals turned a blind eye to what they were up to. My driving instructor remembered them buying him and all the local kids ice cream from the van when they were walking their territory. They were ‘loved’ in that sense.

Faustian bargains are part of human nature. It doesn’t excuse them, but they exist.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
8 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

So much the worse for the Krays and their local admirers.

But one manor isn’t a nation.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Having lived in an are where there were drug dealers outside my front door, riots occurred and worked in a the local supermarket who employed local people, opened my eyes to some some realities.
The two major drug dealers stopped muggings because otherwise white affluent types would too scared to enter the area and buy drugs.
There were gangs swarming through the supermarket where I worked. The manager stopped it by employing a local gang leader who stood at the entrance and knifed the leader of the next gang who tried to swarm the supermarket. The swarming stopped. When a girl was harrassed walking through an estate the members of her family and friends took crowbars and went around to the other estate and smashed up vehicles and beat up men they could find. When I looked horrified at this action, a man said ” If we did not do this they would be stealing from homes and our cars. We had to show we would not be pushed around”. One of the possible origins for CHAV is Council House and Violent.
Where a gang dominates an area street violence declines. The violence occurs on the boundaries between gangs jostling for power and when the senior members of a gang are jailed. There is is then a power struggly for control between those left or a rival gang tries to take over.
In many poor areas people cannot afford the premiums for theft or the excess. If say a bike for a child is stolen it represents many hours of overtime. One way of assessing the impact of crime is to calculate how many hours of overtime or years of savings are needed to replace the item.
Inner city violence is largely due to gangs controlling criminal activity which includes: drugs, fencing stolen goods, stealing cars for overseas sales, prostitution, protection rackets( especially clubs, pubs, supermarkets/shops). Riots are effective methods of mass theft and extorting money from remaining businesses.
The reality is that man in his late teens who has above average fitness and capacity for violence but no academic qualification can obtain money via crime and hence afford a car, visits to clubs, holidays and a good looking girlfriend far quicker than someone passing through the academic system.
Thomas Cashman who murdered Olivia Pratt- Korbel had a beautiful blond girlfriend and a house worth £450K which in Liverpool is a lot of money.
Many affluent upper middle class types have never lived in high crime areas for years, never attended schools or sent their children to schools in such areas and undertaken boring low paid jobs. Consequently, they lack wisdom which can only be obtained from learning from experience.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Can you imagine how different this country would be if people in power shared these experiences?

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
8 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Yes. If one reads A Bryant, in The Midle Ages the Parish elected a Parish Constable a post heldfor a year. When the PC called the Hue and Cry to catch a criminal ,any abled bodied man between the ages of 15 and 60 who did not respond was fined. The PC was answerable to the Constable of the 100 who was answerable to the Sherif. The Kings Judges toured the country and trials were held quarterly. As everyone man was armed by law with a spear, bow arrows and a dagger, England was heavily armed and had a very low murder rate compared to Low Countries and Italy. From 1200 Coroners recorded unexplained deaths so we have good records.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Birrell should be traduced. Liberals do everything in their power to help criminals, probably due to liberals being cowards and getting their thrills vicariously. Also, they rarely suffer any consequences (sadly). Seeing a clearly terrified off-duty ‘journalist’ in London after the 2011 riots was quite satisfying. 🙂
The criminals who prey on the poor come from the same milieu and have families, so of course there will be a strongly pro-crime element among the dregs. The ‘liberal’ middle class attitude to crime is shaped by rarely if ever being the victims of it.

Matt M
Matt M
8 months ago

We release 300 murderers back into society every year (after they have served between 10 and 15 years). This is despite the fact that the Murder Act 1965 which suspended the death penalty (against the will of the public) said that all murderers would be sent to prison for the rest of their lives.
This is a textbook example of the public being shafted by their representatives. Beware a consensus within parliament! It almost always results in policy of which the public disapproves (c.f. green policies, immigration policies, “gender” policies &c.)

Last edited 8 months ago by Matt M
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

If I may say so it is THE “textbook example of the public being shafted by their representatives “ if I may use your pithy comment.
That Parliament has the audacity and conceit to enact legislation that is diametrically opposed the will of the British people makes an absolute mockery of our so called parliamentary democracy.
As you also correctly point, out yet again Parliament is almost at complete variance with the public over this immigration, green and gender nonsense.

Last edited 8 months ago by Charles Stanhope
N Satori
N Satori
8 months ago

I couldn’t resist extracting a couple of quite telling quotes about the Norwegian solution:

Cells are basic but have televisions, computers, fridges, and showers. They offer facilities such as yoga, saunas, music studios, tanning beds, fitness rooms, car workshops and cooking classes. Guards and prisoners enjoy barbecues and play sport together

and there is Halden Prison which…

cost £138 million to build, winning a design award for its minimalist style and efforts to minimise stress. Inmates have appeared on reality television shows and released music under the label Criminal Records.

It all sounds like a rehab camp for narcissistic celebrities who’ve over-indulged in drugs and booze. This system is clearly based on the very prevalent liberal belief (dare I say delusion) that crime is a sort of neurosis in need of therapy, that punishment is simply primitive and above all unintelligent. Criminals would happily turn away from crime if only the fearful and small minded law-abiding citizens would give them a chance. As ever, the intelligence, cynicism and sheer arrogance of criminals is discounted by liberal reformers
Well, Birrell reports the penal system insiders side of the argument. They clearly have faith in therapeutic rehab over punishment. No surprise there – but do they really know how to rehabilitate a criminal? Certainly, there are always experiments and new initiatives being tried somewhere and results are always “promising”. I wonder how a Norwegian style solution would fare in Britain in the long term. Let’s not forget, we are a much more heavily populated and diverse nation.
There must be people within the criminal justice system who are prepared to challenge this therapeutic view. Can’t we hear from them as well?

Last edited 8 months ago by N Satori
Peter Joy
Peter Joy
8 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Gee. I think I should check in to one of those for a relaxing three-month spa break. I could get a lot of work done, too. And they’re charging just £0 a week, you say? Sweet!

starkbreath
starkbreath
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

Commit an egregious enough crime and you should be good to go. I believe the author stated that these luxury accommodations were for the worst offenders.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
8 months ago

“Prisons tend to be small to break up violent cultures and dotted around the country to keep inmates close to their families.” This puzzles me. Are criminals in Norway more likely to come from rural areas, with local families who want to support them in rehabilitation? Is the problem of urban gang-member criminals with equally criminal family members who want to support them in their gang identity and membership something that Norway doesn’t experience?

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
8 months ago

Swelling prison populations is just another symptom of the complete breakdown of society that Progressivism has given us over the last 50 years. The severing of personal responsibility from evil actions has given us a population convinced that they’re entitled to grab anything they want by whatever means necessary, while they can count on the Left to defend them on grounds it’s not really their fault, it’s Western capitalist society. And they’re right. See above.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
8 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

It’s very easy to suggest the releasing of criminals when those criminals do not return to your neighborhood.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
8 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

The public are almost as greedy and unscrupulous as the City of London, the big corporations and the business tycoons.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Do you know what a crack house is and if one has opened up where you live?

starkbreath
starkbreath
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

There it is, the sneering elitist contempt for the masses. You know, the people who actually have to suffer the consequences of progressives’ high minded sympathy for predators.

William Cameron
William Cameron
8 months ago

Start ot the beginning. Follow Robert Peel’s maxim. The First job of a police force is to prevent crime.
Not pursue criminals- stop them committing crime in the first place. So double the number of police. Let them do their job . And make their job the reduction of crime statistics close to zero.
Then prisons would not be overcrowded.
And stop increasing the population.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
8 months ago

And this discussion goes on and on. The Prison Service is useless because of underfunding, as is the NHS or the train system or schools or… everything. More money and investment is needed!!!
Question: are the leaders of the Prison Service organising a lot of staff training about which pronouns should be used in the prisons? Are the leaders introducing a lot of other politically correct changes in their domains? Is this where the extra funding would be used?

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
8 months ago

Seems like the reduction in crime in Norway coincided with the countries rapidly increasing revenues from its North Sea oil and gas reserves. I would even go as far as to suggest that becoming a fantastically wealthy country over a short period of time may have been a more important factor in reducing crime than being nice to prisoners and letting them out earlier.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Prosperity did NOT stop Anders BREIVIK from slaughtering 77, mainly young people in 2011.

Last edited 8 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
8 months ago

What a bizarre response. Prosperity and crime rates all of a sudden have no correlation because a horrendous crime was committed in a prosperous country?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

“The exception proves the rule”?

Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
8 months ago

It might have helped him to buy all those tons of fertiliser

AC Harper
AC Harper
8 months ago

This is a fine article, but it deftly skirts around some of the wider issues for the sake of improving individual rehabilitation. What is someone is irredeemably violent? There are not so many but the consequences for other prisoners, prison staff, or the public (on release) suggest that in a few cases execution would be the most humane solution for everyone except the convicted murderer. Very authoritarian.
And if you want to reduce the risk of re-offending perhaps you should compel prisoners to relocate on their release to prevent them falling in with their old friends and ways. Very authoritarian.
So any move to a better (even if imperfect) system like Norway’s might make good sense – but which political party would be brave enough to make that move? Just as no current political party is brave enough to transition the NHS to a continental model.
I think we have identified the root cause of these problems. Insufficient political will.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
8 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Yes, I wonder if the success of the ‘prisons dotted about the country’ is a matter not of ‘keeping prisoners close to their families’ but rather the reverse, isolating them from bad influences?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
8 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Once the greatest political visionary of his generation, Keir Starmer, is elected, I think your diagnosed insufficiency will be treated effectively.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago

The role of prisons should be to warehouse criminals who should never see the light of day again such as murderers, rapists and hit and run drivers. There should also be tougher 3 strikes and you are out laws so that the chronically anti social can join them. The dirt and rubbish can therefore rot in one place without social contamination . This would probably double the prison population to 200,000 which at a cost of £20,0000 p.a. per inmate would be about £4bn a year. £4bn a year is 2% of national income and I am sure that most people would happily pay 2% or even more of their pre tax income for the safety benefits as, after all, they pay household insurance charges which are often greater.

Last edited 8 months ago by Douglas Redmayne
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago

You didn’t read the article did you? £47k is the number they gave (and I’ve seen it quoted elsewhere as closer to £60k) so your maths is a long way off.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I did read it and I don’t believe the £47k or £60k, its an overestimate. Even if true though it would make my £4bn something like £12bn which is about 6% of national income that people would be prepared to pay. In any case the costs could be reduced if you kept them incarcerated in smaller cells and let them access voluntary euthanasia if they wanted.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
8 months ago

In other words, you want them to kill themselves. And evidently hope to drive them to that.

You are ceasing to be human.

starkbreath
starkbreath
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

So is your grammar.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago

Prior to the ‘Judgement of death Act of 1823’, there were 220 capital crimes in England. At that time ‘transportation’ was used as an alternative in about a third of cases, and of course we had no police force until 1829.

Given the exorbitant cost of housing felons, we should return to the pre 1823 position. As transportation is very sadly NO longer an option, this would mean executing on scale not seen since the happy days of Henry VIII.
I am sure the great British public would approve, the only question being should the executions be in public or not? The only way to settle this matter is by a Referendum.

Of course there would be squeals of horror from the Criminal Bar, the CPS*, the Prison Service and the Police as they would effectively be redundant within a few years.

(*Crown Prosecution Service.)

Last edited 8 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago

What about pay-per-view? Make it a true spectacle like Idiocracy. The public can vote on the method but would have to pay to see the execution itself. They could even pay extra to insult the condemned via text-to-speech.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Ah the those happy days that I have read of in my family diaries, of a breakfast of beefsteak washed down with claret at the ‘Magpie and Stump’, before the ‘drop’ in front of Newgate.
However today more decorum would be required, and even perhaps a little ‘organ stripping’ Chinese style.
Although an advocate of all things Roman, even I would must balk at the reinstating of the Arena.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago

O Charles you inveterate old infidel, don’t pretend you wouldn’t enjoy a day of sanguinary games. Or does your low Anglo-Saxon cunning object to the waste of good organs?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

I must admit that when I visit such spectacular Amphitheatres,as those at Thysdus (El Djem) Lepcis Magna or Sabratha I do often wonder how addictive watching something like ‘Damnatio and bestias’ (DAB) must have been. Even St Augustine was, as he tells us, addicted in his youth.
Off course DAB was only an aperitif for the real stuff in to the afternoon, when the Arena would ring to cry of “Ave Caesar moritori te salutamus” or some such.

Philip Phillips
Philip Phillips
8 months ago

Thank you. I have enjoyed the last few posts. Gave me a chuckle.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
8 months ago

No no, Charles, let’s get back to Merrie England: two guineas for a first floor balcony seat, festive family Bank Holiday atmosphere, kids on Dad’s shoulders chomping on a toffee apple. Give families and communities a sense of democratic ownership of and participation in our laws and justice system.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
8 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Hyenas! Crocodiles! Pools of sharks! Roman-style ballistas! Enormous stone balls dropped from a great height! Dynamite or 40mm AA guns! Executioners with toasting forks, dressed up as devils from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch! Use a bit of creativity: give offenders a slight sporting chance of survival… till the next round. Cheery old ladies who’d been victims of muggings could be interviewed, c/w Crimewatch-style reconstructions – then invited to pull the crucial levers. For Levi Bellfield, Wayne Cousins, Rose West, Lucy Letby, Ian Brady and their ilk, not to mention muggers, looters, burglars, fraudsters, bicycle thieves et al, let the punishment fit the crime.
You could hold the event once a month at Wembley Stadium, with a cheering live crowd of 80,000 or so, broadcast live on Saturday evening prime time on BBC1. Syndicate it round the world. The show would cover the costs of the criminal justice system, massively boost national morale, knock the Premier League into a cocked hat and – crucially – through the salutary deterrent effect, secure its own redundancy within a couple of years in favour of the occasional quotidian flogging.

Last edited 8 months ago by Peter Joy
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

The Circus Maximus is estimated to have seated anywhere where between 150,000 to 250,000 spectators.
The Colosseum a mere 55,000 to 80,000.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

To Hell with the “salutary deterrent effect” – if the blackguards survive the hyenas they should get their freedom … in order to commit further atrocities for the next round of games. My executioner ancestor may not have appreciated your sartorial suggestion but I’m up for it. Shame ol’ Al McQueen isn’t around to design the costumes.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
8 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Humour?

Last edited 8 months ago by Tony Buck
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

What do you think?

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
8 months ago

An excellent post, with which I heartily concur. This country suppressed crime very cheaply and effectively until early-Victorian do-gooders started meddling. However I would not rule out the possibility of a Transportation Treaty with a suitable partner country: Equatorial Guinea, perhaps?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

Equatorial Guinea! Not a bad idea.
Wasn’t that the place that idiot Simon Mann tried to ‘takeover’ so disastrously a few years ago?

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
8 months ago

Yes, back to the good old days of bubonic plague.

Given the exorbitant cost of the British public , could they not be liquidated ?

It would be a wonderful thing for the planet – in more ways than one.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Well there are some advantages, and before long this will become an issue. Idle mouths and all that.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
8 months ago

When the middle-class has been put out of business by AI, and the number of pensioners has become unsustainable, it will, as you say, become an issue.

Mark F
Mark F
8 months ago

The role of prisons should be to warehouse criminals

As Nayib Bukele president of El Salvador has done much to the the delight of his fellow El Salvadorians

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago

The justice system needs to separate the stupid criminals from the malevolent ones. Prisons should provide society a respite from the latter, but ‘progressives’ like the author will ensure reasonable solutions are frustrated.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
8 months ago

This very silly article reminds me of the recent Unherd article drawing comparisons in housing policy between the UK and Japan. As if the manifold differences in demographics, culture, economics, built environment, etc., between the two countries don’t render such comparisons at best mildly entertaining, at worse wildly misleading.
Comparing the criminal justice systems of UK and Norway is similarly laughable. Norway has a population 8% the size of the UK, but a land mass 157% the size of the UK – so the UK is 20x more population dense. While the UK has been accepting large numbers of immigrants for years, and hence has in many areas a deeply heterogeneous ethnic population (and concurrent heterogeneous culture), Norway has only recently become a haven for non-Europeans. Both these factors play a massive role in the extra-legal social norms that constrain bad behavior.
Vast, racially-diverse urban agglomerations, and ethnically homogeneous fishing villages, will demand completely different criminal justice systems!

Last edited 8 months ago by Kirk Susong
John Riordan
John Riordan
8 months ago

I’d like to see the other side of this argument also presented here in the form of an article by someone informed on the subject.

If I thought we could reduce crime, save money and turn erstwhile criminals into functioning, contributing citizens then I’d support these ideas irrespective of my instinctive belief in punishment for crime. But I suspect it cannot be this simple.

YaliniG
YaliniG
8 months ago

Somehow reducing the incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome would go a long way towards clearing out prisons. It leads to low IQ, inability to understand consequences and refusal to accept authority, as well as violence, often sexual. Not just that, these traits are communicated to the next generation if they reproduce. Welfare clearly enables the habits which lead to babies being born with this condition, and it enables the sorts of dysfunctional households which foster mental health issues. Identifying the cause of the massive rise is Autism Spectrum Disorders and problems resulting from SSRIs and psychotropic meds given to the young should be a prerogative of the State. Of course the State prefers to ignore root causes and prevention, and squander our hard-earned cash on nonsensical schemes and further increasing its already bloated self.
Related to the topic only partly is an observation I recently made whilst in an NHS hospital ward. Only in prisons would a human being be expected to exist in the same room as other people whilst they are being sick and defecating, with unsanitary and ugly surroundings.

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
8 months ago

One factor so correlative as to appear nearly causal, among violent, recidivist offenders, is the lack of a father in the offender’s childhood home.
Most of our social pathologies in the West derive from illegitimacy, from irresponsible sexual practices that lead to throwaway children, who grow into damaged, angry, destructive adults.
That countless studies have shown this to be nearly indisputable seems not to matter. “But lesbian parents, but abusive men, but, but, but,” they’ll say.
Certainly many fatherless men, perhaps most, are able to make their way through life. Certainly bad or abusive men exist, and no, of course women should not endure them if they or their children are in danger. And adult relationships are often hard, and women are often unhappy with their choices. All true. An herb much bruised, et al.
But I’m of the quaint opinion that if responsibility were as physically attractive as height, prison populations in western countries would be very low. And the general public would be far safer.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
8 months ago

Somebody twigged that running prisons was a great profit opportunity. As long as they’re returning value to shareholders, what’s not to love?

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
8 months ago

Greedy, cruel people of criminal disposition making a killing out of inflicting suffering.

starkbreath
starkbreath
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

That’s why they should be imprisoned. Oh wait, you’re talking about the people who favor imprisoning them.

Last edited 8 months ago by starkbreath
Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
8 months ago

It was said no soldier ever wanted a return to the glasshouse of the pre 1940s vintage.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Haha, the “Hill’ at Heliopolis springs to mind.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
8 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

It looks bad enough even now.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
8 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

It’s said no one ever wanted to return to a Nazi death camp.

Where do you stop? Where do you draw the line ?

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
8 months ago

The carceral roundabout of the underclass to the point where prison funding appears merely a subsidy to maintain said lumpenproletariat.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
8 months ago

I’m sure it’s true that sentencing policy doesn’t deter, any more than any other law, regulation or ministerial announcement that’s intended to “send a message”. The intended audience just isn’t listening out for messages and doesn’t tune in to the Today programme.
It’s the likelihood of getting caught that deters. Over to you, Chief Constable.

Mark O'Neill
Mark O'Neill
8 months ago

Caning is the answer.

Much less infrastructure, staff, costs.

No criminals returning home as the big man out of prison. Home instead to lie on your front and consider your life of crime.

£47000pp will buy alot of bandages and sudocrem

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caning_in_Singapore

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Mark O'Neill

More than fifty years ago some members of the Parachute Regiment, then serving in riot torn Belfast decided to spend their R&R* in the nearby Isle of Man.
Unfortunately they failed to realise that the Isle Man still employed corporal punishment in the form of the birch for minor offences.
They did NOT repeat that painful mistake.

(*Rest & Recuperation.)

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
8 months ago
Reply to  Mark O'Neill

Quite. Particularly if they got it naked, live broadcast on an 80-foot screen in Trafalgar Square and every country town in England, and the video was uploaded for unrestricted public view forever, complete with Crimewatch-style reconstruction of the crimes being punished and then the screams and howls and tears and sobs and futile pleas for mercy.
No longer, as you say, the ‘big man’ laughing at the stupid liberal system. Instead, a broken, humiliated figure in his local manor, cut down to size, forced to contemplate the realities of life and the hard consequences of unwisely attempting to prey upon the decent people of this country. The deterrent effect would be astounding! Crime would soon evaporate – and prisons and Courts too, and ll the costs associated with them. It’s high time the State was on the people’s side, not on the side of criminals – and that’s how to show it.

Last edited 8 months ago by Peter Joy
Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

What about all the perverted exhibitionists who would love the exposure?

Ian Cory
Ian Cory
8 months ago

This article reminded me of Lord Longford who campaigned on behalf of Myra Hindley and who thought she was misunderstood!

John Solomon
John Solomon
8 months ago
Reply to  Ian Cory

She was certainly misunderstood by Lord Longford!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  John Solomon

I gather that when she was at HMP Askham Richard she was very nearly boiled to death in the kitchen’s ‘industrial’ boiling vessel!

ralph bell
ralph bell
8 months ago

The responses to this article are typically damming, with virtually no acknowledgement for the vast knowledge and experience of someone who has dedicated their life to serving in this sector. I would have expected one or two of the learned contributors to have spoken up. It just shows yet again how ridged and stubborn people can be to think differently despite all the factual evidence presented to them. No wonder societies are turning into a downward spiral with all this closed thinking…..

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
8 months ago
Reply to  ralph bell

What ‘factual evidence’ are you referring to? The causes of criminality, like the role of human sexuality in society, is such a vast and complex question – with elements that go to the very root of the human condition – that I am wary of anyone of thinks there is some clear ‘data’ that answers it. But I welcome you pointing out the evidence you think is so clear, so we can all evaluate whether we think it is clear, too.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
8 months ago

There must be other variables involved in relative crime rates than the systems designed to deal with them. Which is why comparisons between countries aren’t necessarily that helpful, unless you take into consideration all of the differences between them.
This author is saying that crime rates are better in Norway, so it must be due exclusively to their penal system. But why? Its obviously just motivated reasoning.

Last edited 8 months ago by Benedict Waterson
Tony Buck
Tony Buck
8 months ago

Britain has gradually ceased since about 1960 to be a civilized country.

And until that problem is solved, talking about law and order is bound to be largely futile.

Why has civilization fallen ?

Mainly because of the collapse of family life and the collapse of Christian belief.

Those two things are related.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

In working class areas tough men acted as Police. A man who has boxed, undertaken military training and hard manual labour and played rugby to his early thirties, is immensely tough. People were warned, if ignored it they received a physical beating. Now in many areas the only tough men are criminals so they rule the manor.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
8 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

If you know who the guilty party is (assuming you actually do) why not call the police instead of acting as a self-appointed vigilante inflicting punishment without a trial ?

Which is illegal and unjust.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Those settled working class communities based upon agriculture, mining, fishing, steel works, shipyards were very good at minimising crime even during the Depression. Everyone knew everyone and who were the troublemakers.
What is ignored is the construction of council estates post war broke up many communities, literally physically and then changed the requirements for obtaining homes in the late 1960s. Pre late 1960s housing went to honest hard working couples and rules had to be followed. Post 1960 housing was allocated according to need and rules ignored and especially sub- letting and the selling of keys by council staff. The result was transient population of un and semi skilled who lived in the demi monde. The film Harry Brown depicts very accurately a south london council estate dominated by drug dealers. I would interested in your opinion: is it a realistic depiction?

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
8 months ago

The public want law and order – but don’t want to pay for it.

Hence skimped solutions.

Decaying prisons are a counterpart to school buildings made of collapsible concrete.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
8 months ago

I guess we’re lucky one paragraph was given to the victims of crime.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
8 months ago

I worked in prisons early in my medical career. I started off very naive. That didn’t last long. One of the guards taught the adage “if you think there’s good in everyone, then you haven’t met everyone”.
This article is SO naive and ill-informed. The most important reason for imprisoning someone is to deter others who might want to do the same thing (shoplifting in San Fran, as one example) and to protect the rest of society from that person. Imprisonment is the one time in a person’s life where collective safety should be prioritized above individual liberty. That individual has done something so egregious (murder, rape, beat the crap out of their spouse) that some of his individual rights are forfeit. It is unacceptable to expose the rest of us to the risk of him walking the streets.
AOC et al have a Dickensian vision that people are getting tossed in jail for stealing bread for their kids so they don’t starve. They believe that a GAI and flattening all wealth disparities will take away any incentive that twists humans (Rousseau-ian noble savages, born pure and then corrupted by forces beyond our control) into committing criminal acts. Most of us with brains realize that is not true.
In today’s society, it is not easy to be imprisoned. In contrast to AOC’s idea about getting a life sentence for stealing bread, my experience much more aligns with Heather MacDonald’s view. Imprisonment is difficult to earn, and is essentially a “lifetime achievement award” for bad behaviour.
Are prisons good rehabilitation facilities? It would be great if they were. But if they aren’t, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t put people there.

Last edited 8 months ago by Chris Milburn
Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
8 months ago

Apart from the bleeding hearts who will always been with us mopping their tears, those most heavily invested in “prison reform” are the people paid to work with the scumbags behind bars. Some variation of the Stockholm Syndrome occurs over time.

starkbreath
starkbreath
8 months ago

As always in these bleeding heart liberal violent-criminals-as-vicims narratives, there is not one word of support or empathy for these dirtbags’ victims or their families. Not one damn word.