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Britain’s prison crisis

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Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, spoke to Socialist Worker about Britain’s soaring prison population
Issue 1975
Many people are in jail for breaching Asbos (Pic: Howard League for Penal Reform)
Many people are in jail for breaching Asbos (Pic: Howard League for Penal Reform)

The number of prisoners in British jails has reached an all time high. Who exactly are the people getting caught up in the prison system?

They are overwhelmingly men — some 73,000 of the 78,000 people in prison are men. Crime is a men’s problem, a problem to do with masculinity and the role of men in today’s society.

They are also young, aged between 18 and 25. They are disproportionately from ethnic minority groups. They are working class. They are unemployed. And many of them are homeless.

Many have mental health problems and/or drug and alcohol addictions.

Alcohol accounts for a lot of crime, particularly violent crime. Drugs account for acquisitive crimes — people need to get money to feed the drugs habit. That’s basically the majority of prisoners.

The percentage of the population in prison has gone up slightly more for women than for men. Ten years ago there were just over 40,000 people in prison, of which 2,000 were women. Now it has ­almost doubled for both groups, and women have been victims of this general rise.

Women tend to be victimised twice over. They are victimised when they are already victims — like those women who are trafficked into this country and forced into prostitution. Many women in prison have serious mental health problems and shouldn’t be in custody.

What kind of crimes are people being sent to prison for?

Sometimes there is a case for making an example and using prison to do this, for example over race hate crimes. If you spraypaint something racist on a wall, that is not a serious or violent crime. However the criminal justice system might use an exemplary punishment to show that we will not put up with this.

But generally anything that is not serious, violent and a continuing danger should not be punishable with prison — for instance, minor property theft like shoplifting.

Prison often hides the fact that these are people who have multiple problems and very complex lives. They have a history of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, homelessness and other problems. You have to solve these problems rather than dealing with the offence, which is just the tip of the iceberg.

The more difficult areas are domestic burglary and street theft, muggings. I’ve been mugged on the street and it was terrifying.

The way that all this is presented in the newspapers is that prisons are overcrowded. That is true, but our concerns are slightly different.

If the prisons were overcrowded with people who had committed serious violent offences and were a danger to the community, we wouldn’t worry so much. We’d be talking about what was being done with those prisoners, how long they would spend in prison, the conditions they were kept in and so on.

But the problem is that prisons aren’t full of those people at all. If you look at who goes through the prison system in any given year, you see huge numbers of people going in for short periods of time for relatively minor offences.

There is a case for custody — we’re not complete abolitionists. But custody should play a useful role. In the same way that hospitals are the acute end of the healthcare system, prisons should be the acute end of the penal system.

The Howard League has highlighted a huge rise in the number of prison suicides recently. Why are people killing themselves in custody?

It’s very hard to say why any particular individual would kill themselves. But we do know that overcrowding certainly contributes to deaths in prison.

Prisons are very overcrowded, especially the local ones which tend to be the Victorian prisons in inner city areas. These are the prisons that people are sent to when they’ve just been sentenced, or when they’re on remand.

People die because they’ve been imprisoned inappropriately — and the prison is so overcrowded that the staff can’t cope.

We also know that going into prison is very difficult for drug addicts. They have very few coping resources. They have mental health problems. They are locked in a cell and it is very scary and lonely.

People tend to kill themselves in the first few days of custody. Once you get institutionalised, you can cope with it, but at first it’s very frightening. And prisons are very violent places, with a lot of very violent people in them.

While the prison population has almost doubled in ten years, the crime rate has fallen. How does that correlate?

It doesn’t. There is no relation between crime rates and prison. What is crime? Stealing a packet of sweets from Woolworth’s is a crime. But tube companies ripping off the taxpayer and other companies not paying any taxes isn’t — the people who run those companies get sent to the House of Lords.

One of the main contributory factors to the increased use of custody has been the focus on anti-social behaviour, as opposed to criminal behaviour. More people have come into custody for low level offending and breaching anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos).

My theory is that the Labour Party had so many MPs who had nothing to do, so they held surgeries as they thought it was very democratic.

But who goes to surgeries? It’s not drug addicts or children — it’s the people who complain about young people on street corners.

I know this because I was a councillor for eight years. The people who came to my surgeries were the people who whinge. You get old people coming to complain about young people. It’s creating an anti-social behaviour “industry” — it’s corrosive.

And while breaches of Asbos are certainly contributing to the number of children in prison, I think it’s more insidious than that. These are children who often need help, which they’re not getting. So they are going on to commit offences and get caught up in the penal system. These children need intervention, but they are getting Asbos instead.

What kind of alternatives does the Howard League see to prison?

We don’t call them “alternatives” because that sounds like it’s prison first with this as a second option. That’s not the case.

Asking what offences should prison be for is the wrong question. The question should be — should prison just be for public safety? My answer would be yes. It should not be used for punishment.

We have to recognise that crime and anti-social behaviour are incredibly damaging — to an individual, to the person who commits it and to society as a whole. The appropriate response is to heal that particular offence and try to prevent it from happening again.

Prison doesn’t work because punishment doesn’t work. If somebody hurts individuals and then you hurt them, either proportionately or disproportionately, you don’t heal the damage — you create more pain.

Punishment is an outdated concept and we have to move to a more restorative system. Our system has been based on punishment for 2,000 years. I think it’s time to move on from that. There are better ways of dealing with people who commit offences. The Howard League has just set up a new awards scheme to try to publicise and encourage the development of a community response to crime.

Our awards scheme defines what we try to see — schemes which are cost ­effective, healing, that engage with the victims and the community.

They are schemes which get the person who committed the offence to make amends, but are also proportionate. You can’t ask someone who has committed one theft to dig ditches every weekend for the next year.

It’s much better for people to make amends than spend three weeks in a bed in Pentonville — which is completely pointless and very expensive.

The Howard League for Penal Reform’s briefing paper on prison overcrowding and suicide is available at


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