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Our prison system is an economic and moral failure

Few politicians want to talk about prisons. They should be braver
Few politicians want to talk about prisons. They should be braver

Stuffing more and more people into crime-ridden jails, without rehabilitation, is serving no one, writes Lucy Kenningham

The moment that the foreman of our jury stood up in front of the judge to declare that we had found the defendant guilty of murder was more fraught than I had, perhaps naively, imagined. The accused was astonishingly calm, stoney faced, almost stoic. The victim’s family, sitting directly opposite me, were the opposite. All three erupted into ecstatic tears. One woman – I presumed, the ex-partner of the victim – looked me right in the eye and mouthed “thank you” over and over again. I smiled, hoping to embody sympathy rather than pleasure. The defence barrister looked resigned. The sentencing would be the next day, but he would be sure to be in prison for at least 27 years. Then the jury was dismissed. We stumbled out of the court. Some of the jury cried, myself included.

What is the point of prison? The man we charged with murder was a drug dealer who, after an unknowable altercation, stabbed another man to death. He was 33. He grew up almost exclusively in care homes, his mother having a range of mental health issues including schizophrenia. He had already been in prison for a combined decade for serious drug-related offences. Each time he came out, he fell back into a familiar shadow world of crime, which the vast majority of people never encounter and can therefore never fully understand.


That said, the world he faces behind bars may not have been so different from his daily experience on North East London’s streets. It’s no secret that Britain’s prisons are stuffed with drugs. And it’s not just spice (synthetic cannabis) either, says David Shipley who, as  a former inmate at Wandsworth, would know. It’s cocaine and other hard stuff too. The chief inspector of prisons, Charlie Taylor, recently found that over half of prisoners at Hindley, a prison between Manchester and Liverpool, tested positive for illicit drug use. In another prison nearby, 21 per cent of inmates developed a drug problem after getting locked up.

You’d be hard pressed to find a Brit who would say that the justice system is working. Prisons are fit to bursting: we are literally around 2,000 inmates away from full capacity – the closest it’s ever been, leading the Institute for Government to term the situation a “crisis”. In desperation, the government has started releasing offenders early – a decision that even proponents of reducing the prison population struggle to get behind. Full capacity prisons aren’t akin to a bath you’ve overfilled and need to let a little water out. Our approach should be strategic and principled.

Few politicians want to talk about improving prisons. Prisoners are politically unappealing: they are not a large, wealthy or influential group of people – worse, they can’t even vote.  MPs are often more interested in short-term headlines about being “tough on crime” than in fixing the root causes of failure in our prison system, even if they know this will save money in the long-term.

Why are our prisons so full? A terrible backlog in the courts – exacerbated by Covid – and the fact we have the toughest sentencing laws in Western Europe. We also boast the highest share of imprisoned people of anywhere in this region – the UK sends two times as many people to jail as the Germans do – a fact that cannot just be down to teutonic respect for the law. Just this year the prison population rose by seven per cent.

But if the state keeps sentencing people to stints in stripy tops then the cycle will simply continue as more and more end up in jail, come out without skills and possibly with a new drug habit, and then reoffend. Our recidivism rate is around a quarter and for some crimes it’s mind-bogglingly high – 80 per cent of those convicted of shoplifting go on to reoffend. Reoffending costs £18bn a year according to the government’s own statistics – which is a third of the total estimated cost of crime to the UK as a whole. This is an abject failure.

Looking across the pond should give us cause for more fear: America has famously terrible prisons, a 70 per cent recidivism rate and nearly one per cent of its population are imprisoned. The UK should want better for itself and its citizens. Whilst the Sentencing Bill that is currently going through parliament proposes scrapping prison terms less than 12 months (a good idea), it would also expand and lengthen other sentencing (a bad idea).

People want tougher sentencing, it’s true (70 per cent of people think sentencing isn’t harsh enough). But people also recognise that prisons are nasty places that don’t help people change their lives. Fewer than one in 10 people surveyed said that having more people in prison was the most effective way to deal with crime, the Prison Reform Trust has found. Early intervention, such as better parenting, discipline in schools and better rehabilitation, were all rated as more effective responses. Sam Julius from the charity Clinks suggests that: “Instead of sending more people to prison for longer, which is incredibly resource intensive, you should be addressing needs in the community. If not, you are simply sending more people to prison at the point of crisis which could be exacerbated.”

The point of prison was made painfully acute to me at the reading of the verdict. To punish, the victim’s family’s tear-stained grins were saying. But are there not moral limits to retribution? Economic ones, too: it costs £50,000 a year to keep someone in jail. It’s not great value for money if they come out unchanged but for a new addiction to crack. As former inmate Shipley says, “education, training, work isn’t really happening in prisons”. Instead, people languish in overcrowded cells with nothing to do for up to 23 hours a day. That I have contributed to sending someone to such a futile hell hole feels unconscionable – of course the purpose of prison should be to punish, but it should also be to rehabilitate. And Britain has completely lost sight of that.