The fantasy of prisons as places of reform

Thursday, 10 March 2016

The Independent has today published a letter by our Director, Richard Garside, calling for an end to the unnecessary imprisonment of tens of thousands of fellow citizens.

Richard was responding to an editorial in yesterday's paper, which called for more prison officers to be recruited to improve staff – prisoner ratios. This 'counsel of despair', Richard argued, avoided the real challenge of reducing the numbers in prison.

He also criticised the 'fantasy' of thinking that prisons could be meaningful places of reform and rehabilitation.

Read Richard's full letter on The Independent website or below.

Why prison numbers must be reduced

‘The absurdity of Britain’s high prison population looks set to deepen (editorial, 9 March). The Ministry of Justice is projecting ongoing growth in numbers through to 2021.

‘There are a number of good reasons for reducing Britain’s bloated prison population. Doing so to improve the rehabilitation prospects of those who remain locked up is one of the less persuasive ones. The alternative of recruiting more staff to improve the ratio of staff to prisoners is a counsel of despair that will only justify further prison growth.

‘The notion that prisons can be places of rehabilitation, if only the “right” number of people are imprisoned, or the “right” staffing ratios are in place, is a peculiarly persistent mantra with little by the way of credible evidence in its favour. Michael Gove is right to reject claims that rehabilitation will only be possible when the numbers in prison are reduced. But only because it is a fantasy to think that prisons can be meaningful places of reform and rehabilitation.

‘Prisons are harmful places of despair and misery, for male and female prisoners. They are harmful places too for prison officers, who experience higher levels of stress, and earlier deaths, than those in comparable professions.

‘The starting point of any coherent approach to our prisons is a clear commitment to end the unnecessary imprisonment of tens of thousands of fellow citizens. Ministers may not like this message. They should continue to hear it.’