Socialist Worker

Britain’s jails: overcrowded and discriminatory

by Esme Choonara
Issue No. 2008

Professor David Wilson

Professor David Wilson


The prison population of England and Wales reached an all time high of 77,962 last week. It has gone up by 51 percent in ten years. Many campaigners are worried about what the increased jailing of people means.

“Prisons don’t work,” criminologist and former prison governor professor David Wilson told Socialist Worker. “They fail by almost every measure that they set for themselves. They are costly and counterproductive.”

Britain locks up more people per head of population than any country in Western Europe with the exception of Luxembourg. Britain also has the most privatised prison service in Europe with 11 privately run jails.

Overcrowding has had a serious impact on conditions in prisons. Last week the report into the death of Zahid Mubarak recommended an end to enforced cell sharing. Due to overcrowding, 17,000 prisoners are currently forced to “double up” - to share a cell built and designed for one person.

Frances Crook, the Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has argued that “doubling up” and enforced cell sharing are policies that “lack decency, humanity and safety”.

She said that “17,000 men and women are being forced to share a cell where they have to eat and sleep next to an unscreened toilet”.

One reason for prison overcrowding is the increase in jail sentences for minor non-violent crimes. In 1994 less than 5 percent of people found guilty of shoplifting were given prison sentences. In 2004 the figure was nearer 20 percent. Similarly, a 2005 study found a 51 percent increase in people jailed for defaulting on fines.

David Wilson believes that prisons are increasingly being used to deal with social and health problems.

He said, “Prisons are increasingly being used to ‘disappear’ the mentally ill, and all those young people who cannot find jobs after being excluded from school.”

There are also thousands of people in Britain’s prisons who should be in hospital or receiving care for mental health problems. Around 70 percent of prisoners are suffering from some form of mental illness.

The figure is even greater for young people. Some 85 percent of 16 to 20 year old prisoners suffer from some sort of mental health problem, with around 10 percent diagnosed with extremely severe conditions such as psychosis or schizophrenia.

The Prison Reform Trust has found that prisoners are twice as likely to be refused treatment for mental illness inside prisons as outside. There were 78 suicides in prisons last year.

There has been a huge increase in the number of young people locked up. The number of 15 to 17 year olds in institutes has doubled in ten years. Under 15 year olds are increasingly imprisoned for minor and non violent crimes.

In 1992 there were 100 under 15 year olds in prison and young offenders institutes - all for what are categorised as “grave crimes” such as violent robbery. In 2004 there were nearly 800 under 15 year olds locked up. Only 45 of these were jailed for “grave crimes”.

There is evidence of racism in the prison service. There are currently 13 cases of racism and abuse being pursued by former inmates at Whitemore high security jail.

Research by the London Social Exclusion Unit has found that black prisoners are more likely to be given longer sentences.

Black people are more likely to be found guilty of disciplinary offences in prison and are less likely to be have access to constructive activities.

There is no evidence that prison is an effective way to deal with crime. In fact, the impact of prison can make it more likely that people reoffend. A 2001 study showed that 69 percent of 18 to 20 year olds reoffended within two years of their release.

The Howard League has argued that “imprisonment, even for a short period of time, ruptures lives and the damage is often irreparable”.


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