The announcement by Justice secretary Jack Straw that the government are going to build five new prisons holding 1500 each was greeted as something of a climb down.
Previously, the government had been proposing three ‘titan’ style prisons holding 2,500 per facility. The change of heart appeared prefaced on economic restraint.
The commitment to increase the capacity of the prison system by 7,500 places remained the same but by breaking it into smaller units and only committing to build the first two facilities the time for completion of the deal was left open ended.
The most telling element in the announcement was what appears to be the government’s now complete belief in the last Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard’s mantra that prison works.
The degree to which the government seems to have turned from addressing not just crime but also its causes was evidenced in Mr Straw’s comments. Building prisons is now apparently a good idea for many reasons.
“Once a prison is established in an area, almost without exception the local community becomes very supportive of it. A prison is a source of secure, well paid employment and a focus for much volunteering,” said Mr Straw, who was also keen to emphasis the exemplary nature of the new structures. “These new prisons will neither be Victorian replicas nor large warehouses. They will be modern, purpose-built institutions for adult male prisoners only.”
The Justice Secretary’s comments reminded me of a story told some years ago by Bishop Terry Brain of Salford. He recalled how the head of a private company that was going to run a prison in the north west, opened his remarks with the claim that the prison would bring long term employment to the area. No intention then of reducing the prison population, rehabilitation and education.
The Labour Government has disappointed in the area of crime and punishment. It started with some progressive ideas about reducing incarceration with a greater emphasis on community sentences and rehabilitation. Restorative justice schemes were talked about approvingly. It seemed that a genuine new way of thinking had arrived after the Tories old lock em up and throw away the key approach. Sadly, as with much else, the early signs were misleading. A government stuffed full of lawyers has legislated hundreds more offences onto the statute book and sought to reduce the discretion available to judges in imposing sentences. The result has seen the total prison population rise to 82,773. The useable operational capacity of the prison estate for England and Wales is 84,741.
The high level of re-offending, particularly in the younger age groups, the inability of most in prison to read and write and the creation of universities of crime don’t seem to matter. Despite being in power for 12 years the approach to the prison system has been security driven and based on an out of sight out of mind approach.
There was more imaginative thinking on prisons and crime from Winston Churchill as a Liberal Party Home Secretary in the early part of the last century than has been seen from any recent holder of the office. There was a brief hiatus back in the 1980s when a number of Conservative Home Secretaries, most notably Douglas Hurd, seemed to believe that prison didn’t work and other forms of punishment and rehabilitaiton needed to be established but this all ended with the arrival of Mr Howard at the Home Office. Unfortuntely ever since, the thinking has been regressive, seeing incarceration of ever greater numbers as in some way virtuous.
The last decade has also seen the vast growth of the security industry. Increasing numbers of prisons are being built and run by the private sector. Security is now seen as a profitable business. So for those who would argue for a more progressive criminal justice system there is not simply the moral and practical arguments to be won but also that of defeating the vested economic interest. There is now a growing business group that makes its money out of locking up ever more people. There needs to be some fresh thinking on crime and punishment. More prisons are certainly not the answer but an indication of the failure of recent policy initiatives. How can spending £35,000 plus per head to make someone into a better criminal be considered effective? A genuine look at the causes of crime and how best to rehabilitate those responsible for it would be a move in the right direction and is certainly long overdue.