It's not just the sheer amount of discourse, it's also the breadth of coverage. Here for example is a recent article in the Economist giving yet more weight to the argument for sentencing reform:-
The parlous state of prisons in England and Wales has echoes of the past
The government has proposed every solution except the obvious: locking fewer people up.
Another day, another disturbance. On the evening of November 20th the prison service riot squad was summoned to deal with what the authorities called “an isolated incident” at HMP Moorland, near Doncaster. Cells were damaged and two inmates were injured in a fracas involving around 40 prisoners. To describe this as isolated is disingenuous. It is just the latest in a litany of troubles afflicting prisons in England and Wales.
The upheaval at Moorland came two weeks after over 200 prisoners had seized two wings at Bedford prison. Over the course of six hours they got out of their cells, broke into medicine stores and started fires. Officers were brought in from across the country to quell the unrest. In the same week two inmates escaped from Pentonville prison; one of them had been on remand for murder. Using diamond-tipped tools, they cut through their cell bars before scaling the perimeter wall. A prisoner was also stabbed to death in Pentonville last month.
Violence against both officers and other inmates is soaring. Even as the proportion of young men, those most prone to violence, has dropped (see chart), prisoners are hurting themselves and others more often and more viciously. Rates of self-harm are up by a quarter year-on-year. Serious assaults on other prisoners have risen by 28%. Attacks on staff have increased by 43%. In the year to September 2016, 107 prisoners killed themselves, almost twice as many as five years ago.
Two long-standing structural problems are largely to blame: understaffing and overcrowding. Between 2010 and 2015 the number of front-line officers was slashed (see chart). Realising the impact of these cuts, the government has been frantically trying to reverse course. Some 1,315 officers were hired in the year to this September. But so many are leaving that the total has in fact fallen by 154. On November 15th more than 10,000 prison officers stopped work, part of a “protest action” (stopped when it was judged an illegal strike). Meanwhile prisons are stuffed: by the government’s own standards, they hold 11% more people than they can decently accommodate.
That is mainly down to longer sentences. At 16.4 months the average is now more than four months longer than it was ten years ago. That partly reflects increasingly tough punishments for those already locked up. Since 2010 over 1m more days of imprisonment—equivalent to 3,000 years—have been imposed on inmates for breaking prison rules, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform.
Britain has seen crises in its prisons before. In 1990 inmates rioted at Strangeways for 25 days. One was killed and scores more injured, along with almost 150 officers. In the subsequent inquiry Lord Woolf, a judge, identified overcrowding, overstretched and oppressive staff and grim conditions such as “slopping out” as contributory factors. Today the problem is that officers are too few and too inexperienced. Most cells now have toilets. But the similarities are still worrying.
More riots may erupt. Jason Warr, a criminologist at Lincoln University, worries that the murder of an officer is more likely. “And if you get one, in rapid succession you’ll get a couple of others,” he fears. His concerns do not seem so farfetched. Last June an officer was killed with a kick to the head while escorting a prisoner to a transport van. Earlier this month an inmate in the Isle of Wight tried to cut the throat of an officer with a razor. The mass riot at Strangeways was a “signal” event, says Mr Warr; it forced the Tory government of the day to acknowledge how badly it had neglected the prisons.
Similar woes do not seem to be having the same effect now. Reforms announced this month by Liz Truss, the justice secretary, fail to get to the root of the problem. They include more autonomy for governors, prison league tables and investment of £1.3bn ($1.6bn) to fix the crumbling prison estate. No-fly zones may be introduced to stop drones dropping off mobile phones and drugs. This week’s Autumn Statement confirmed that 2,500 more front-line officers will be hired by 2018.
No mention has been made of one obvious answer: to lock up fewer people. In the long term, that means shorter sentences for some crimes and greater use of measures such as community penalties, as recently suggested by the Lord Chief Justice. But such proposals will take years to take effect. Other options could bring numbers down more rapidly. Michael Gove, Ms Truss’s predecessor, suggested last month that at least 500 prisoners serving indefinite sentences for public protection could be released.
Executive release is another option, says David Wilson, a former governor who is now a criminologist at Birmingham City University. Those locked up for less than six months could be let out. As home secretary in 1910, Winston Churchill used this power to cut the prison population. Reducing pre-trial detention would help, says Mr Warr. The share of the prison population awaiting trial or sentencing in England and Wales is not high by international standards—11%, compared with 20% in America and 29% in France—but finding alternatives would relieve the overcrowding.
None of these options would be politically easy. The press has recently howled at pictures of inmates apparently living in luxury. But the government has accepted that prisons have big problems. The next step is fixing them.
The Howard League is launching a new campaign:-
The 3 Rs of Prison Reform
Our new campaign sets out some immediate and practical steps to get prison numbers down. Our overcrowded prisons are not law-abiding places. Prisons are rivers of crime. We are throwing more and more individuals into these raging rivers of violence, of drugs, of frustration and mental distress, and somehow magically thinking that this will make them better people.
It does not. The river doesn’t steer these people to safe shores but sweeps them away into deeper currents and further and further into crime. Ultimately that means more people will be released from prison and go on to reoffend. More members of the public will become victims of crime.
What we need is immediate action to stem the flow of people into prison and support so that prison staff can then focus on working positively with those who remain behind bars.
Overcrowding and why it matters
The prison population of England and Wales has doubled in twenty years and the system now holds many more prisoners than it was designed to hold. Overcrowding means around 20,000 prisoners are forced to share tiny cells in twos or threes. The prisoners will not know each other or what they have done. You can go to sleep one night with a cellmate in the other bunk and the next morning a complete stranger could be sleeping there.
Overcrowding means that prisoners are not placed in the prison most likely to help but instead where there is simply a bed that is available. Overcrowding means that prisoners do not have sufficient access to purposeful activity such as work or education, or to visit healthcare or receive visits. More and more prisoners spend up to 23 out of 24 hours a day lying on their bunks doing nothing. The sheer boredom itself feeds and breeds the problems of violence and of drug abuse behind bars.
Meanwhile, the manifest needs of most prisoners are not being met. Poor mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, poor literacy and numeracy: these and other issues are more likely to be made worse rather than better by a spell inside.
Despite the best efforts of those working in the system, prisons are sinking under a tide of violence, of rampant drug abuse and increasing evidence of mental distress among prisoners. There were more alleged homicides in 2015 than in any other year on record. Assaults in prison have risen by 34% in the space of one year. Assaults on staff have risen by an even greater 43%.
It is not just violence against other people, however, but violence against the self. The rate of self-injury has more than doubled among male prisoners since 2010. The levels of suicide in prison are the highest since records began.
Across the board, things are not just getting worse but the rate of deterioration is getting worse. If what was happening every day in prisons was happening in schools or hospitals – even just one school or hospital – there would be a public outcry. The state of the prisons is now a national emergency.
What needs to be done: the 3 Rs
The government has announced plans to improve safety but unless it deals with overcrowding by reducing demand on the prisons then those plans will fail.
Bold sentencing reform to better match the use of prison to the resources available is required. There is no reason we cannot bring numbers down by a half and have a prison population of around 40,000 – the same size of prison population we saw in England and Wales when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.
In the immediate future, however, we need to prevent more violence and more deaths. The Howard League will outline practical actions in three key areas, actions that can start to ease the pressure and set us on a journey to reduce prison numbers. We are campaigning for measures to address the 3 Rs:
Rules in prison
Release from prison
Recall to prison
Over the coming weeks we’ll be presenting more ideas for each of these areas and what you can do to help.