The prisons crisis. Alternatives to incarceration

Richard Garside
Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Thank you for the invitation to speak this evening on the prison crisis. I admire the work and values of Le Monde Diplomatique. It is good to be among those committed to supporting its ongoing, and important, work.

My organisation, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, is an independent educational charity that advances public understanding of crime, criminal justice and social harm.

Through partnership and coalition-building, advocacy and research, we work to inspire social justice solutions to the problems society faces, so that many responses that criminalise and punish are no longer required.

All our publications are free to download from our website. We also hold a number of events over the course of the year. In June this year we will be co-organising the bi-annual International Conference on Penal Abolition. You can find out more about this, and subscribe to our regular eBulletins, via our website.

‘The prison crisis: what are the alternatives to incarceration?’

This is a good question, one to which there are a number of answers.

What do we mean by ‘prison crisis’? What is implied by ‘alternatives to incarceration’?

Let’s start with what we might mean by the ‘prison crisis’.

The prison crisis: safety and numbers

The House of Commons Justice Committee, which scrutinises the work of the Ministry of Justice, including prisons, published a report in May 2016 on prison safety. The report referred to ‘the ongoing and rapid deterioration in prison safety in England and Wales which began in 2012’. Despite action supposed to address this deterioration, the Committee’s report stated, ‘overall levels of safety in prisons have not stabilised… let alone improved’. In fact, they ‘continue to deteriorate significantly’.

In July 2016, shortly after Theresa May’s appointment as Prime Minister, the Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, Peter Clarke, warned in his Annual Report that prisons had ‘become unacceptably violent and dangerous places’. He wrote of a ‘surge in violence’ and ‘shocking’ rises in suicide and self-harm incidents. A year on, in July 2017, he went further, writing that ‘the situation has not improved – in fact, it has become worse’. He also wrote that he had ‘often been appalled by the conditions in which we hold many prisoners’.

The problem of violence and self-harm in prisons in the three UK jurisdictions is illustrated by this graphic from our UK Justice Policy Review report, published last year.

Last month, prison inspectors demanded urgent action after concluding that Nottingham prison was ‘fundamentally unsafe’. Also last month, inspectors found that many of the 1,000 plus prisoners in Liverpool prison were enduring squalid conditions: rats, cockroaches, damp, dirt, hundreds of broken windows, filthy and leaking toilets.

In his Foreword to the report on Liverpool prison, the Chief Inspector, Peter Clarke, related a particularly disturbing situation:

‘In one extreme case, I found a prisoner who had complex mental health needs being held in a cell that had no furniture other than a bed. The windows of both the cell and the toilet recess were broken, the light fitting in his toilet was broken with wires exposed, the lavatory was filthy and appeared to be blocked, his sink was leaking and the cell was dark and damp. Extraordinarily, this man had apparently been held in this condition for some weeks. The inspectors had brought this prisoner’s circumstances to the attention of the prison, and it should not have needed my personal intervention for this man to be moved from such appalling conditions.’

This is one kind of crisis affecting our prisons: a crisis of safety and of living conditions.

Another form of crisis, and one related to the crisis of safety and living conditions, is a crisis of prison numbers.

Here are some illustrations of this crisis in prison numbers, starting with another graphic from UK Justice Policy Review.

And now some figures taken from an April 2017 briefing by the House of Commons Library, illustrating the trends in England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

So here are two ways of thinking about the crisis in prisons.

A crisis of safety and of living conditions. This has particularly been a crisis in the England and Wales jurisdiction. Prisons have never been comfortable places to be. Living conditions and levels of safety, however, do appear to have deteriorated alarmingly over the past six or seven years.

A crisis of prisoner numbers. This is something that has developed over a much longer timescale, rising steadily from the middle of the twentieth century; accelerating from the 1990s and stabilising over recent years at a much higher level.

How should we respond to these dual crises of safety and numbers? What are the alternatives to incarceration? What, indeed, do we mean by alternatives to incarceration?

Responding to the crises: the conventional view

One set of solutions focuses on what are seen to be the institutional dysfunctions or failings of the prisons themselves.

For example, the recently-appointed prisons minister for England and Wales, Rory Stewart, said a couple of weeks ago that the prison service needed ‘to get back to basics. We need to absolutely insist that we are going to run clean, decent prisons’.

Rather than ‘abstract conversations… about grand bits of prison policy’, he said, what was needed was concrete action to sort out ‘disgusting’ conditions. And he put down this marker:

‘If I’m not able in the next 12 months to achieve some improvements in making these prisons basically clean with more fixed broken windows and fewer drugs, I’m not doing my job’.

The government is also committed to some more strategic interventions. First, they are engaged in a recruitment drive, for some 2,500 additional prison staff, to make up, partially, for the reduction of some 6,000 to 7,000 officers between 2012 and 2016.

Second, under the banner of ‘reducing reoffending’ they are committed to tackling the perennial problem of the revolving door of criminalisation —> imprisonment —> release from prison —> recriminalisation —> reimprisonment —> release.

As the then Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, wrote in her Forward to the White Paper on Prison Safety and Reform, published in November 2016:

Nearly half of all prisoners go on to re-offend within a year. This revolving door of crime and prison costs society £15 bn a year… I am determined to make prisons work. This requires a huge cultural and structural change within our prisons - a transformation away from offender warehouses to disciplined and purposeful centres of reform where all prisoners get a second chance at leading a good life.

What’s wrong with this picture?

After years of complacency by ministers over the state of prisons in England and Wales, Rory Stewart’s bluff ‘roll up your sleeves’ call has a certain appeal. The reality is that, poor planning and management aside, many of the problems identified at Liverpool, Nottingham, and other prisons are symptoms of a wider malaise: a growing gap between an historically high number of prisoners on the one hand, and shrinking budgets and resources on the other. Given this, motivational talk and no nonsense chivvying will only get you so far.

Recruiting more prison officers might go some way to addressing some short-term staffing shortages. It also feeds the beast of a bloated prison system that sucks in and spits out tens of thousands of people each year.

The aspiration to ‘make prisons work’ by ‘reducing reoffending’ has a superficial appeal. Indeed, last year the government sought to enshrine in law a definition of the purpose of prisons, which included the reform and rehabilitation of prisoners and preparing them for life outside prison.

But what grounds do we have for believing that reform and rehabilitation is a realistic expectation for our prison system? Why do we think that locking up individuals, in institutions that strip them of their individuality and autonomy, often far from home and those who care for them, could in any meaningful way be rehabilitative?

Put this way, it seems more likely that the revolving door of reoffending - or as I prefer to call it, recriminalisation - is an inevitable consequence of the prison system, rather than a failing open to being fixed if only the right reforms are implemented.

Doing it differently

Whatever the problems in our prisons system - and there are many - the prisons crisis is not, fundamentally, a crisis in prisons: one that can be resolved if the right reforms, the right action, is taken. It is a crisis of prisons: of our unbending attempts to treat a complex set of social problems - violence, drug, alcohol and mental health problems, poverty and disadvantage, social antagonisms - as if they are a simple set of crime problems, be resolved through punishment.

We will start to address the prisons crisis when we stop trying to fix prisons and instead start closing them. This is not a fanciful or fringe demand. A letter published in The Times newspaper in December 2016 called for ministers to ‘make it their policy to reduce prison numbers… to the levels it was under Margaret Thatcher… That would mean… over the course of several years… reducing prison numbers to around 45,000’.

The three authors of this radical prospectus were the former Conservative Home Secretary and Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke; the former Labour Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith and the former Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg.

The real alternative to incarceration is a sustained programme of decarceration and prison closure, and a shift away from prosecution and punishment as a means of reacting to those problems we call ‘crime’, and towards prevention and resolution.

This is the thinking behind the Centre's Justice Matters initiative, illustrated by this final slide. It is possible, we ask, to think about how we might deal differently with those complex personal and social problems that we currently treat as crime problems?

Listen to Richard's speech here: https://www.mondediplofriends.org.uk/the-prison-crisis-what-are-the-alte...