The tory justice secretary Kenneth Clarke last week sent right wing politicians into fits of rage with his plans to reduce the prison population.
Labour’s Jack Straw joined the fray, railing against this act of “softness”. Tory crime policy, he said, was now being “decided by 57 Lib Dem MPs”.
Many on the right evoked former home secretary Michael Howard’s 1993 speech, in which he declared that “prison works”.
The argument in favour of prison says that crime will fall as the number in jail increases. Over the past decade, it is possible that offending rates fell while prison numbers rose.
But that does not mean that prisons are responsible for lowering the amount of crime.
First, measuring the level of crime is notoriously difficult.
Some figures record how many “incidents” are reported to the police. Others reflect only those incidents that the police deem to be crimes. Then there are reports that only deal with crimes that result in a conviction.
In addition to these, there are victim surveys that include crimes that were not even reported to the police.
All give vastly different results—so how can we tell whether crime has really fallen, let alone whether prisoner numbers affect the levels?
Second, any drop in crime will have occurred while the economy was expanding and unemployment relatively low. As the financial crisis hits, crime will almost certainly rise.
One fact we can be sure of is that prison rarely works for those behind bars. Jails are dangerous places—particularly for those whose real problems are poverty, addiction and mental illness.
Almost 13 percent of prisoners are incarcerated for drug offences. Yet drugs are readily available on the inside and the strict testing regime leads many inmates from marijuana to harder drugs that leave the body quicker.
When released, many former prisoners find they have nowhere to stay, can’t get a job and are forced back into crime to survive.
Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” stance led to a punitive policy many Tories applauded.
But being tough on the causes of crime didn’t mean tackling poverty, helping former prisoners into education or work, or funding services that could support them.
So, between 2006 and 2008, re-offending rates grew by 8 percent. And to cope with the spiralling numbers the government embarked on the largest prison building programme in Europe.
The Daily Express’s Leo McKinstry responds to evidence of re-offending by saying, “It is true that short jail terms under six months are ineffective in reforming offenders, but that is an argument for longer sentences, not for giving up.”
But where does that logic leave us? With a three-year stretch for shoplifting?
Even the Tories realise that this approach is untenable and are now keen to release former inmates with “tracking tags”.
These schemes—which are farmed out to private companies to run—confine people to their houses with strict curfews. They prevent those being “rehabilitated” from working in the evening or at night, or from having a normal social life.
And, despite his plan, Clarke is not any kind of opponent of prison. His motivation to cut numbers is largely driven by the need to cut spending.
Clarke’s stress on the waste of resources also opens the door wider for private companies to step in and offer “solutions”.
There are already 11 private prisons in Britain. Reports in 2009 showed they performed worse than those run by the public sector. A higher level of overcrowding in private prisons means more violence between inmates and more complaints about welfare.
Whether or not Clarke manages to cut prison numbers, his plan will not put a stop to the barbaric logic that sees locking up some of the most vulnerable in society as the best way to deal with inequality.