According to the government’s Prison Population Statistics – as of 31 March 2016 the total prison population in England and Wales was just over 85,400. The number of people in jail has been increasing especially rapidly since Michael Howard declared that ‘Prison Works’ in 1993 – a mantra adopted by successive governments. Since that time, the prison population has doubled, with an average increase of 3.6% per year. (In Scotland and Northern Ireland the increase was considerably less during this period)
This trend would suggest that we have truly entered the era of mass incarceration (David Garland’s concept), but does prison actually work?
Does Prison Work?
If your measure of success is rehabilitation and the prevention of re-offending then it appears not: the proven re-offending rate within one year is just under 25%, and about 37% for juveniles.
NB These are the ones we know about, and this is only re-offending within one year, the actual re-offending rates are more than double this figure and the National Audit Office, re offending costs us the equivalent of staging another Olympic Games every year.’
To put these figures in context, if a school had 25-50% of its pupils who achieved no GCSEs, OFSTED would be called in and the management sacked, yet for some reason we tolerate these levels of failure where prison is concerned.
Possible Reasons why Prison Doesn’t Work
Firstly, most (as in about two thirds) have no qualifications and many prisoners have the reading age of a 10 year old when they go into jail – and lack of educational programmes in jail does little to correct this. Basically most prisoners are unemployable before they go inside, and they are doubly unemployable when they come out with a criminal record.
Secondly, our prisons are crammed full of people serving sentences for non-violent crimes, many of whom come from troubled and complex backgrounds – for example, 25% of prisoners grew up in care and over 40% have no home to go back to when they are released.
Thirdly, at the same time as the prison population doubling, in the last five years the number of staff employed in the prison estate has been cut by 30%, with the prison budget being slashed by a quarter.
The result is overcrowding and terrible conditions. It is estimated that 1/5 prisoners spends 22 hours a day in their cells; violence and drugs are rife and suicide rates are at their highest for 25 years.
This means that many jails simply aren’t the kind of environments which are conducive to rehabilitation – this is the focus of many documentaries, most recently the BBC’s ‘Life in Wandsworth Prison‘
This documentary demonstrates how under-staffing has resulted in a lack of care for prisoners, with many being locked-down for 23 hours a day, with scant mental-health care provision where required (which many prisoners do). In addition to this the documentary also shows how drugs are readily available in the jail, with weed being openly smoked in front of the guards and it’s clear that many of the prisoners are victims of violence while inside.
It costs £36 000 a year to keep someone in jail, maybe this money could be better spent on social schemes to prevent offending?