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Crime and punishment – why prisons don’t work

This article is over 11 years, 8 months old
As the crisis in the prison system grows, Julie Sherry shows how prisons do nothing to prevent crime and dehumanise those who end up there
Issue 2306

More than 1,100 people in UK prisons committed suicide between 1996 and 2009. By 2010 there were around 35 incidents of prisoners self-harming every day—and this rate has continued to rise.

These horrifying statistics expose the hollow lie that prisons are there to rehabilitate offenders.

Prisons are filled with people from backgrounds of extreme poverty and often abuse. Incarceration institutionalises violence and strips people of any control over their lives.

The Prison Reform Trust surveyed prisoners’ experience.

“They treat you like shit, a piece of dirt,” said one prisoner. “My dad is not an MP, my mum’s not clever, I’m just a nobody and people can do what they like.”

Others talked about the climate of fear inside. One said, “Someone got raped in the shower by eight lads and then two days later he killed himself and that scared me”.

Incidents of sexual assault in prisons are believed to be drastically under reported. Many describe sexual violence as a dominant daily feature of prison life.

One woman prisoner spoke of how she would often have to choose between the violence outside her cell, or face her depression alone.

She said, “Staff just say, ‘go behind your door’ but you don’t always want to be on your own because that’s when you get down, and start self harming again”.

Overwhelmingly, prisoners have low levels of education. Two thirds have numeracy skills below the level expected of an 11 year old, and half have a reading ability of this level.

Some 48 percent of prisoners have a history of debt. A quarter of prisoners were in care as children, compared to 2 percent of the general population.


And a shocking 70 percent suffer from two or more mental disorders. For the general population this figure is 5 percent for men and 2 percent for women.

Institutionalised racism also rears its ugly head in the prison population breakdown, with over a quarter of prisoners from ethnic minorities.

And after being brutalised inside, prisoners are given little or no support when thrust back into the outside world.

“Sometimes I feel I am better in here than when I’m out,” said one young offender. “How can I stop doing crime if I can’t do anything?”

Two thirds of prisoners were unemployed before going to jail—but not by choice. Over 65 percent named a job as the most important factor for them to avoid returning to crime.

But as one young prisoner put it, “I would be willing to work but now I have been inside it’s hard to get a job”. Just 36 percent of people leaving prison go into some type of education, training or employment.

A third also said having somewhere to live would be decisive in their rehabilitation to society, but had no permanent place to live before they ended up in jail.

A prisoner in a Scottish jail called it “a vicious circle”.

“Housing should come and see you just before you get out,” she explained, “but all they do is send you to hostel accommodation”.

As the government’s onslaught on our welfare state continues, what support does exist will be cut down even closer to the bone.


The experience of prison alienates and isolates people, further damaging their ability to engage in society.

“Prison kills you a little bit every day,” Paddy Hill told Socialist Worker in an interview in 2010. He had been framed for a bombing he did not commit and imprisoned by the British state for 16 years.

He explained, “Prisons are violent, brutal and evil places filled with hatred. Prison can do irrevocable damage to people.

“I was taken out of prison, but prison wasn’t taken out of me.”

Several organisations rightly campaign for prison reform. But the truth is that entire prison system is founded on injustice.

Society under capitalism is blighted by inequality, and the justice system exists to maintain this inequality.

When a burglar breaks into a rich person’s house it is illegal, so they are likely to go to prison.

But when a bailiff takes furniture from a working class family because they are poor, this is perfectly legal.

Even the most heinous crimes committed by one person against another can only be understood in the context of a cruel, unequal society that crushes dreams and breeds bitterness, rage and frustration.

If prisons are there to reduce crime, they are spectacular failures. Some 74 percent of released prisoners reoffend in their first year on the outside.

Meanwhile many “white collar” corporate crimes go unpunished altogether.

But the prison system does fulfil an ideological purpose.

It’s about making people feel power­less under the weight of the dehumanising institutions of the law—and creating the sense of a twisted criminal underclass to blame for society’s problems.

Creating a world without crime means dealing with its root cause and overthrowing the class-based society that breeds inequality and alienation.

Prisons are part of a system for the rich that exists to keep the poor on their knees.

Prisoners’ testimonies are taken from the Prison Reform Trust report No One Knows: Prisoners’ Voices

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