This goes some way to explain the shocking revelation contained in yesterday's Prison Reform Trust report: that English and Welsh jails contain more prisoners serving life sentences than the rest of western Europe put together, without even having a particularly high rate of violent crime compared to other European countries. The problem is getting worse, as the number of prisoners serving mandatory life sentences for murder climbs inexorably. Three times more "lifers" enter the prison system every year than leave it; the numbers of such prisoners has risen by 40 per cent in the last decade.
They are also serving longer sentences: parole boards are more reluctant than in past decades to recommend release. Average time served on life sentences has risen from 11 to 14 years since 1987, and the numbers incarcerated may begin to rise even more rapidly given the introduction of discretionary life sentences for a second violent offence in 1997.
Governments should not punish just for the sake of it. There is protection to consider, too, since while the violent are locked away in prison, they cannot do more damage. Conditions during that time need to be productive, rather than depressing and destructive. Prison at its best ought to be able to reform and educate inmates, who are as often as not trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence in which crime is seen as the natural state of affairs.
These goals are put into jeopardy by overcrowding, and the poor conditions attendant on overloaded buildings and overworked staff. Inmates' best interests, which in the long run are also the best interests of the general public, are also imperilled.
The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has shown that he is aware of this. He has argued that rehabilitation should be the main aim of a prison sentence, speaking of prisoners' self-esteem and the need for skills to get them into jobs. He has liberalised some of the more repressive Conservative measures, such as removing television sets from prisoners' cells. He has indicated that he will listen favourably to proposals for prison alternatives, such as community work, or "tagging" those who can serve out their sentences under supervision at home.
It is possible to imprison a much greater number of offenders, as the vast prison population in the US demonstrates; that may even serve to lower the number of crimes, for a while. But it is much more likely that it is the economic boom in America which is causing the fall in crime rates. The evidence, contrary to what Michael Howard wanted us all to believe, is against prison.
The problem of "lifers" is more specific. It is rare for murderers, the majority of those serving life sentences, to reoffend, meaning that the Prison Reform Trust's demand - that the mandatory life sentence be lifted - can and must be met. Only then can judges take account of the mitigating, or particularly brutal, circumstances of each individual crime. The number of life prisoners is relatively small, at less than 10 per cent of the total, but a loosening of this judicial strait-jacket would be symbolic.
The prison service desperately needs such a gesture, as a sign to judges, magistrates and parole boards that the Government's view has changed since the crude Tory years of "prison works". Without it, more and more prisons will have to built, to less and less reward. No Labour government should countenance such a situation.