Downsizing prison

Richard Garside
Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Last week I wrote that a coherent plan of action to control and reduce the prison population in the UK was desperately needed to arrest the alarming drift towards ever higher prison numbers.

So what might such a plan look like? How can we downsize prison?

Here are my suggestions, in the form of five propositions.

Proposition one: a clear, unambiguous and unqualified assertion that high rates of imprisonment are undesirable and a commitment to doing something about it. As one of my colleagues at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies said the other day, we must be clear that societies with high prison populations are unhealthy.

For those taught to believe that prison is a natural answer to the problem of crime, that imprisoning people keeps the rest of us safe, this is perhaps the hardest step to make.

In truth, there is no relationship between imprisonment and crime rates. If there was, the United States, with the highest imprisonment rate in the world would be the safest country in the world. Yet its homicide rate is much higher than the UK’s.

Proposition two: address the structural causes of high imprisonment in poverty and patriarchy. Societies marked by high levels of poverty and inequality tend to have high prison populations. Prisons predominantly hold poor young men who have engaged in characteristically male forms of violence and disorder.

A coherent plan to tackle high prison populations must take both these facts much more seriously than is generally the case.

Proposition three: a sustained investment in institutional alternatives to prison and criminal justice. Far too many people with drug, alcohol and mental health problems, for instance, end up in prison because of the dearth of good quality drug, alcohol and mental health services in the community.

What is needed is sustained investment in a range of high quality social services and a move away from a reliance on the criminal justice process to somehow pick up the pieces.

Proposition four: downsize the criminal justice system across the board. This means fewer police, fewer courts, magistrates and judges, fewer prison and probation officers, fewer public servants of various descriptions processing fewer arrestees, suspects and convictees.

This isn’t an argument in favour of turning a blind eye to crime and disorder. We will only be able to downsize criminal justice if we get the institutional alternatives to prison and criminal justice right. The two go together.

Proposition five: address the problem at the level of the UK, Europe and internationally. All too often discussion of high imprisonment rates replicates the boundaries of our different justice systems. We talk about the prison population of England and Wales, of Scotland, of Northern Ireland. We then assume it is the job of the respective ministers of justice in those jurisdictions to sort out the problem.

In truth, high imprisonment and the bloated criminal justice process behind it are symptoms of a wider social and political malaise. This requires a UK, European and, ultimately, international agenda to resolve.

Reforms internal to the criminal justice process have surprisingly little impact on the underlying prison population. This is why conventional reformist demands - more community sentences for example, or changes to sentencing practice - are missing from my list.

In a short article it’s also only possible to scratch the surface of a much more complex set of challenges. In the coming months I'll be working with colleagues and partners to develop these ideas and rekindle the vision of a downsized prison system.

I'll be posting further updates on Works for Freedom. I'd also love to hear from you if you want to contribute to the development of this vitally important agenda.

Update, May 24, 2012: Given Ken Clarke's comments yesterday in parliament - in which he blamed the tabloid press for the high prison population - it is worth recalling his comments on the political economy of imprisonment in parliament last November:

'The future prison population will depend on all kinds of things beyond the control of the Government, but the prison estate is well placed to meet the demand. Eventually it will all depend on whether we have long and protracted youth unemployment, how far the recession has retracted, and how successful we are with our rehabilitation revolution, workplace reform, skills training, education reform and so on. The Prison Service is there to meet the demand, but we expect the demand to be reasonably stable.'

No mention of the tabloid press there.