I would build...schools instead of prisons

Professor Graham Pike
Friday, 29 May 2015

Why build schools not prisons? To quote Aaron Sorkin, ' is the silver bullet. Education is everything. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries'.  I'll return to the notion of the silver bullet later, but first want to focus on the potential offered by the message of building more schools, rather than the idea.

'We know what we are against, but what are we for?' is a timely and apposite question because its simplicity points the way to answers that are not just attractive to the scholarly community, but offer real possibilities for alternative political discourses around crime and the justice system. Avoiding the soft-on-crime label by being in favour of the current prison system seems a principal component of the party political canon of spin and, like it or not, the incorporation of critical constructions of crime into mainstream manifestos and policies seems like an impossible dream. Like Nixon going to China, it takes a Theresa May to cut funding to the criminal justice system and sell it as part of a policy to also cut crime.

So, if it is perceived political suicide to want to be anti the status quo of custodial sentences, the only answer would seem to be for a simple, motherhood and apple pie policy that nonetheless is a serious alternative to UK prisons.

Build schools not prisons. It is easy to imagine the headlines. It is easy to imagine a centrist politician describing with outrage that more money is spent on keeping one 15 year old child in a YOI (£94,780 per year, Ministry of Justice, 2014) than is spent on keeping 15 children in secondary school (£6,041 per pupil, Department of Education, 2014).

And with a foot in the door of political change comes a change in conversations, constructions and convictions about crime. We can talk about prevention not punishment, of resilience not risk, of rethinking not reacting and of careers not criminal careers. Simply ending the bleak and bleakly inaccurate 'lock them up' rhetoric is surely a worthy goal in itself, and what better way than to stop talking about prisons and to start talking about schools.

Let's return to the idea. There is plenty of evidence suggesting education reduces crime. For example, Lochner and Moretti (2004) concluded that schooling significantly reduced rates of both incarceration and arrest, and that this resulted from an actual change in criminal behaviour. Further, they estimate that in one year, '...the social benefits of a one per cent increase in male US high school graduate rates (from reduced crime alone) would have amounted to $1.4 billion' (Lochner and Moretti, 2004, p. 182).

But there are complexities behind the simplicity of the silver bullet. I would not want to suggest for one second that it is only the less well educated that commit crimes for example, nor that only individuals can cause harm. Indeed, the harmful acts perpetrated by corporations (see Steve Tombs' article in this series) originate in board rooms populated by the very well educated indeed. They should obviously know better, but here it is the organisational, economic and political contexts that engender harm, and it is hard to see how building schools rather than prisons would impact a sector of society that spent considerable time in school and are very unlikely indeed to see the inside of a prison.

Regardless of such complexities, the simple fact remains that the UK prison system is itself a cause of considerable (state) harm, so any reduction in the prison population would also result in a reduction in levels of harm. More importantly, the revolutionary shift in our society resulting from a fundamental reimagining of the criminal justice system where the emphasis is placed on education not incarceration, combined with a better educated populace, would also require a reformulation of the crimes of the poor and the harmfulness of the wealthy equation; and it is hard to imagine that such a change could actually make things worse!

In the end it is simple. Want to cut crime? Build schools not prisons. Want to save money? Build schools not prisons. And in the end it has to be a simple answer to 'what are we for?' if we are ever to put an end to the current cycle of callous constructions of criminality that cause yet more harm, inequity and suffering in the name of justice.

Graham Pike is Professor of Forensic Cognition, The Open University


National Offender Management Service (2014), Costs per place and costs per prisoner, Annual Report and Accounts 2013-14, Management Information Addendum, Ministry of Justice Information Release, 28 October.

Department of Education (2014), Expenditure by local authorities and schools on education, children and young people's services: 2013-14, Table 4:

Lochner, L, and Moretti, E. (2004), 'The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports', American Economic Review, 94(1), pp.155-189.

The West Wing (2000),  Season 1, Episode 18, 'Six meetings before lunch', Warner Bros., April.

Tombs, S. (2015), I would alternative to the corporation,

As part of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies' Justice Matters initiative we are inviting submissions to the 'I would build...' series. We want people to tell us their ideas and thoughts on how to build alternatives and transform society so that criminal justice institutions as they currently exist are no longer necessary. Email us with your ideas.