Nasrul Ismail argues that imprisonment and austerity are expressions of unsubstantiated political ideologies - they are not social and economic necessities
Though prisons are portrayed as controlled and regimented environments, they are now out of control. In England, single-occupancy cells are crammed, often with two or three prisoners locked in 22 hours per day and eating only inches from their filthy toilets.
Staff shortages mean reduced prisoner access to healthcare, this can result in prisoner suicides by those wishing to end their prolonged suffering. In the past, attacks on prisoners and staff have in some prisons, snowballed into staged riots, arson, and hostage-taking. A research participant of mine from the Council of Europe commented, ‘I expect to see conditions like that in some of the prisons in Balkan countries . . . I do not expect to see conditions like that in England.’
In response to global economic recession, the UK embraced austerity in May 2010, shortly after the coalition government took office. To cover burgeoning deficits, and to avoid raising taxes, the government imposed huge spending cuts to social programmes.
The prison budget was accordingly reduced by 22 per cent (or £0.8 billion) whilst the government steadfastly ignored consistently high custody rates. England and Wales now have the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe, with 174 people out of every 100,000 in jail. Statistics show crime levels have continuously fallen in recent decades, reducing fear of crime and improving community confidence. Nevertheless, the imprisonment rate remains stable.
To sustain their political careers, politicians have imposed austerity ultimatums on the public while simultaneously and contradictorily decrying ‘tough-on-crime’ stances. Without public scrutiny, penal institutions have been obligated to accept austerity without proper safeguards.
Bearing the brunt
Prisoners bear the brunt of this political discourse, despite enduring more physical and mental suffering than the public and lacking available outlets to express their agony. Considering these institutions are not awash with resources to begin with, austerity imposes a twofold punishment on prisoners over and above their deprived liberty.
Imprisonment and austerity are expressions of unsubstantiated political ideologies. They are not social and economic necessities. Politicians claim that imprisonment should reform prisoners and prime them to become contributing citizens upon release. However, becoming good citizens for prisoners involves acknowledging harm they inflicted and taking responsibility for improving their own lives. It requires an equitable and just system to enable them as responsible citizens.
Too often, these politicians’ empty slogans paint a bleak picture of us living in anarchy. The recent UK nationwide recruitment of 20,000 new police officers, the promise to curb early releases of prisoners, and building additional 10,000 prison places are portrayed to ensure that criminals ‘literally feel terror’ at the thought of breaking the law. The real paradigm shift must come from the voting public. If we believe we live in a non-discriminatory and tolerant country, we must end the politically motivated suffering inflicted on prisoners.
The political literacy of language surrounding imprisonment and austerity in England is critical to changing political outcomes. Political sound bites on these two political agendas, thus far, have been illogical, unintuitive and do not ring true. Considering that the annual cost per prison place is £38,042, imprisonment is wasteful and unjust, diverting funds from essential social services that have greater public benefit.
Enlightened societies, such as those in the Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden, have chosen to move in the opposite direction. They recognise that people go to prison as punishment and not for punishments. To them, criminal activities are a mere a smokescreen to cover brutal realities of poverty, inequality, and exclusion.
What kind of people do we want released from prisons? Around 96 per cent of English prisoners will return to their communities. Most of these have been convicted of crimes, including theft, that they committed to fund drug habits. Addressing drug habits via community-health provisions is a more proportionate response to criminality.
Despite recent side-lining of public focus on austerity by concerns surrounding Brexit, our tacit acceptance and complacency of austerity makes us, the public, complicit in the degrading and torturous English prison conditions. Honest and transparent discussions on austerity and imprisonment are now urgently needed, so that England might live up to its own self-concept as a progressive society.
Nasrul Ismail is a social scientist, whose research investigates the impact of austerity on prison health in England