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I wrote this contribution to the Future We Deserve, a curated collaborative online project. It re-iterates some thoughts to responding to crises whilst also providing a brief overview of prison and its purpose.

If there is nothing else the current economic crisis has taught the modern Western world it’s this: hyperincarceration is not affordable or sustainable. This is by no means a new lesson – when Churchill was Home Secretary at the beginning of the 20th Century, in the face of a World War he reduced the prison population of England by half. When the Nazi war machine hit the Soviet Union, Stalin – the granddaddy of the penal state – released some 2 million prisoners to fight against Hitler’s hordes in the penal battalions. More recently during the crisis of the late 1990s, Russia embarked on an ambitious programme of penal reform to reduce its sick, addicted, economically inactive and hugely expensive million-strong prison population – something it managed up to a point.

Now, as a society we are re-discovering these ideas – and everyone from Kenneth Clarke to Arnold Schwarzenegger is attempting to reduce the use of imprisonment in their jurisdiction – with limited success – because they understand that first and foremost, hyperincarceration is a luxury politicians can no longer afford.

The current Western model of imprisonment is a fairly recent one, dating back to the early 19th century. In historical terms, that’s not long. Whilst we see the prison-industrial archipelago as some kind of unmovable monolith, not least because of its physicality and the psychological associations it invokes in our culturally conditioned minds, the reality is whilst it is violent, inflexible and simply too big, it is nonetheless very fragile.

Broadly speaking, prison systems the world over have four stated goals.

  • The first is deterrence – the reasoning goes that the idea of going to prison should put people off committing crimes, or as the case may be, acting outside a certain societal norm.
  • The second is rehabilitation – the idea is that people who make mistakes can become free from addiction, reflect on their past actions and become educated enough to be able to re-enter society as a socially and economically active citizen.
  • The third is retribution – society wants vengeance, and it wants to see those who commit crimes be punished in an obvious way.
  • Finally there is public safety – isolating criminals from society and keeping them in a safe and secure environment so they have no further opportunity to cause harm to others.

The truth, widely accepted by practitioners and scholars is that the vast majority of prison systems fail almost completely in the first three, and partially in the fourth. When a junkie is desperate for his next hit, he won’t think rationally that he is afraid of going to prison so he better not break into the car to steal something to sell it on. The myth of rehabilitation has been blown out of the water long ago – prison is “an expensive way of making bad people worse”; to quote just one statistic up to a quarter of all new heroin addictions are acquired in prison. The public being satisfied that vengeance has been extracted certainly is very rare – in part thanks to the constant stream of news stories originating from the colourful imaginations of tabloid journalists about prisons being a holiday camp. Finally, from the point of view of public safety, most of the time the physical buildings are secure and keep people in, but the various high profile escapes over the years and the crimes which occur in prisons and are organised from within them give the lie to the notion that walls and barbed wire can give any full guarantees of keeping the public safe and those inside secure.

There is no correlation between crime rates and incarceration rates, so why, when none of the four stated goals of imprisonment are met fully, and most are barely met, have we found ourselves in a situation in which we hit a global financial crisis with the burden of bloated, exorbitantly priced and dysfunctional penitentiary systems?

The answer lies in the third goal – the need for vengeance and visible punishment. When times were good, politicians could afford to spare no expense in making themselves look tough, and so locking lots of people up with no other purpose than their self-image and feeding the popular media was common practice. The number of people a country chooses to imprison is a purely political choice: compare Scotland and Finland – similar in size, demographics, population profile, and yet Scotland chooses to imprison three times more people. Notably though, Scotland still imprisons a lower proportion of its citizens than England & Wales.

The problem is, after every binge there is a comedown and then a hangover. So too will one follow our current hyperincarceration binge, although the sooner we halt, the less future damage we are causing and the less explosive the timebomb. The future we deserve, or at any rate have earned, is one of expanding infectious diseases, increasing inequality and more criminalisation and alienation.

The correct response is not difficult, but it will not be popular with the tabloid press and less statesman-like politicians looking to score political points at the cost of common sense, as for example the former champions of hyperincarceration Tony Blair and Jack Straw have been doing recently in response to the current UK government’s attempts to pursue a more enlightened penal policy. People and publications who engage in these activities will come round eventually, as they did in Moldova or Kyrgyzstan when the HIV epidemic became self-sustaining and harm reduction legislation had to be introduced, in the face of the mythology which equated needle exchanges and methadone maintenance to condoning illegal behaviour. Politicians and practitioners had to be courageous in the face of an infectious disease which threatened to wipe out much of the population, and ignore the denigrators with personal agenda of self-promotion or newspaper circulation.

As a result of an over-crowded system, which is under-resourced by some 30%, public safety and public health will be severely compromised. This applies in all jurisdictions, not just the UK. A series of actions is needed to ensure that the fallout from the crisis is as painless as possible. The trend towards hyperincarceration must be halted and reversed. This can be achieved by remanding far fewer people in custody whilst they are awaiting trial (currently c. 20% in England) many of whom are released when they reach trial, stopping incarcerating all but the most prolific offenders who are detained for non-violent crime (currently about 2/3rds), and addressing the issues of those who are mentally ill outside of the prison setting (currently some 90% of all prisoners suffer from a diagnosable mental illness). This should be accompanied with a much stronger focus on strengthening the management of non-violent offenders and former offenders in the community, new ways of investing in prevention and early intervention and a bold and extensive programme of de-criminalisation (the last UK government created over 3,000 new criminal offences on the statute books.

Of course custodial establishments should also be able to continue to perform their core function well, in any crisis. They should be able to hold people who are very dangerous safely and securely without disruption. Preparation for a crisis-type scenario should entail all secure establishments ensuring that they are equipped with generators, water purification equipment, vegetable gardens, staple food stocks and possibly bakeries, fire fighting equipment and sufficient emergency healthcare facilities to cope with interruptions in supply which a crisis might bring. However, such preparations should be secondary to a much more pressing need – unburdening the system by removing those who shouldn’t be there into a safe and well managed community environment, and ensuring that those who remain are kept safely and securely.

Society will never escape the need for a certain degree of coercion, but how civilized that society is must surely be judged by how sparingly and safely this coercion is applied. Only by moving away from the current cycle of imprisoning more and more people and churning out a generation of unhealthy, addicted, jobless and criminally inclined individuals can we begin to move towards a society where the default response to the problems of crime and justice is not based on trying to please the readership of tabloids and is instead concerned with our future and safety.

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