The recent Guardian letters page has attracted some interesting contributions:-
Surge in prison population shows that urgent reform is needed
The most terrible fact to emerge from Phil Wheatley’s attempt to sound the alarm over the appalling state of our prisons (Unforeseen rise in prison population adds to pressure on system ‘in crisis’, 31 August) is that the rise in the prison population is due to “the courts’, particularly the crown courts’, increasing use of custody versus non-custodial disposals and the trend towards longer sentences”. Bluntly, we have a judiciary in the criminal courts which believes, against all the evidence of the cases which come before it, that prison works.
There were 344 deaths in prisons in the 12 months to March 2017, up 54 from the previous year – 19% overall, with self-inflicted deaths up 11%, and incidents of self-harm up 24%. The Ministry of Justice’s figures show that two-thirds of the rise in the prison population between 1993 and 2012 has been driven by greater use of long custodial sentences. The average sentence is now nearly four months longer than 20 years ago at 15.9 months. Yet isolating people in over-crowded, spice-ravaged prisons does nothing to reduce reoffending rates. It adds further damage to chaotic lives.
If this government was genuinely committed to prison reform it would take active steps to promote non-custodial alternatives to prison, and intervene in relation to current sentencing practice. It chooses instead to do nothing, giving the judiciary a licence to carry on sentencing prisoners to pointless time in factories of suicide and self-harm.
Polly Toynbee is right to point out that the recent rise in the prison population in England and Wales is not due to more people being sentenced to prison, but to ever-lengthening prison sentences (‘Tough on crime’ created the prisons crisis. It’s time for justice to be rational, theguardian.com, 31 August). The Ministry of Justice suggests that this sentence inflation is due to “more serious cases coming before the courts” but there is no data to back this up. Average sentences have increased for every type of crime except public order. The most likely explanation is that people are getting punished more harshly for similar crimes. Sentencing guidelines (introduced to improve the consistency of sentences) seem to have caused judges to become more risk averse.
There is also evidence that the trend to get defendants to “appear” in court via video may also be leading to longer sentences. If we want to prevent the prison population rising, maybe we should introduce a moratorium on any new court reforms or sentencing guidelines, at least until we understand more about why we have sentence inflation.
Director, Transform Justice
Phil Wheatley suggests that the rise in the prison population will “prevent Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service closing old accommodation as they open new, more efficient accommodation”. This will almost certainly entail the building of huge regional prisons, each with a capacity of more than 2,000 prisoners. The problem with such prisons is that they have no connectivity with the areas to which prisoners will eventually return and so opportunities for prisons to establish community links, both social, cultural and economic, which would substantially aid reintegration, are effectively denied.
As for facilitating family visits – possibly the most vital link in any successful transition back into the community – the hours spent journeying to these regional prisons, often with children, will do little to maximise such important connections. The current prison policy needs reversing to one which sees smaller prisons and “localism” being the main drivers for the future, offering a better hope of tackling a key factor in the rise of the prison population, namely reoffending.
(Chief probation officer for North Wales 1985-96), Mold, Flintshire
There is broad consensus that the catastrophe in our prisons will only end when the government has a coherent plan to reduce prison numbers. There are now more than 4,000 women in prison – the majority sentenced for non-violent offences like theft, often driven by mental ill-health, abuse, addiction and poverty.
This summer’s prison crisis has unfolded alongside reports of woeful provision in the community of mental health services, substance misuse treatment and a lack of supported housing. It would be astonishing and shameful if the plan to build five new women’s prisons was to go ahead in this context. Instead, investment in community alternatives to custody and specialist support such as that provided in women’s centres (proven to be more effective at reducing reoffending) could half the women’s prison population by 2020.
Chief executive, Women in Prison
The reported unexpected (only by those of a Panglossian disposition) rise in the prison population presents two complex difficulties to two critical groups operating within the criminal justice system: sentencers and prison staff. With the privatisation of the majority of the probation service into what are called community rehabilitation companies (CRCs), and the consistently critical HM Inspectorate reports about the ineffectiveness of those privatised sections, sentencers must be disheartened by the ability of those CRCs to offer any meaningful interventions which will reduce reoffending. Such disappointment will inevitably increase the likelihood of custodial sentences being imposed.
Prison staff, particularly frontline officers, must despair at the cavalier manner in which the government promises “jam tomorrow” (ie extra staff) but seems unable or unwilling to engage with the problems experienced today – for example, rises in violence and self-harm, disturbances that sometimes become riots, and the growing frustration of being able to do little or nothing more than contain prisoners without any opportunities to offer activities that contribute towards reducing or eliminating future offending.
As has been said countless times before, the criminal justice system needs a radical rethink, and not one that nudges it further and further into the for-profit sector, to the detriment of effective and humane sentencing.
(Former assistant chief probation officer), Bishops Castle, Shropshire
When I was a youth court judge and member of the Youth Justice Board, there was a dramatic reduction in the number of young people receiving custodial sentences as a direct result of increased confidence in alternatives provided by local youth offending teams. Many will conclude that the ever-increasing number of adult offenders going to prison has some connection to the part privatisation of the probation service.
The justice secretary, David Lidington, speaks of the need for sentencers to have confidence in the options to prison before they might forbear from consigning ever more offenders to a prison estate full to overflowing. But then it was his cabinet colleague, Chris Grayling, who contracted out the probation service to calamitous and confidence-sapping effect.
It is an altogether perverse swimming against the tide to have fewer offenders brought to court and yet ever more of them incarcerated. Everyone possessing even a nodding acquaintance with the situation on the ground knows that carrying on as we are is illogical and wrong. In terms of reoffending rates and further societal alienation to come, keeping on keeping on with a non-policy which was acknowledged publicly by senior criminal justice service personnel as wrongheaded in the early 1990s (with then prison numbers around 46,000) is unprincipled and cowardly.
Seriously hampered by Grayling’s fixation on outsourcing or not, an urgent release of swaths of non-violent – and as a specific example harmlessly geriatric offenders – to be managed in the community is the only sane way to proceed. To achieve that wholly desirable aim through executive release may be politically bold but nonetheless right. Then policy can emerge, rather than the present inexorable drift to all that is wrong and hateful in the worst of the United States’ prisons.
(Solicitor and higher court advocate), Birmingham
In 2010 Joe Paraskeva went voluntarily to a secure psychiatric unit. He tried to escape from it, was found guilty of damage and sentenced to indefinite imprisonment for public protection, later overturned.
In 2011 Nicola Edgington vainly sought psychiatric help for her deteriorating mental health. In its absence she murdered Sally Hodkin. At her trial she was treated as entirely rational and responsible for her actions and given a long minimum tariff life sentence.
In 2015 Sarah Reed attacked a member of staff at the psychiatric unit where she was detained. She was transferred to prison where she killed herself. The prison care was criticised at her recent inquest (Care failings contributed to mentally ill woman’s death in jail, inquest finds, 21 July).
The journey that starts with inadequate mental health services proceeds via law enforcement agencies that are designed to deal with rational criminals and have an inappropriate approach to those afflicted with mental illness and can end with a lifetime in prison or premature death. It is not just the disregard of the rights of those so mistreated that causes concern. It is the waste of potentially recoverable citizens who are denied any scope for constructive contribution to wider society.