It would be easy to write a column damning Vicky Pryce as she tours the studios, promoting a new book inspired by her experiences of prison. “Crime doesn’t pay,” the expression goes, and yet here is a privileged, well-connected public figure, using her imprisonment for criminality to flog a book and rehabilitate her reputation. Contrast her with a young black man, lacking stable friendships let along contacts in the British Establishment, released from prison, for ever treated with suspicion, with few prospects of getting secure work or any sort of comfortable future.
But it was not Vicky Pryce who designed the hideous injustices of British society, and her media blitz is a useful hook for a debate about our bleak, discriminatory, counter-productive justice system. Again, it is a tragedy that it takes the imprisonment of white, privileged public figures like Pryce and her fellow studio-touring ex-husband to provoke such a debate.
The discussion has focused on the horror of middle-class people having to endure the misery of prison, as though it is worse because they supposedly have further to fall. Her diaries revealed “what life is really like for a middle-class woman inside of the country’s toughest prisons,” salivated the Daily Mail. But again, here is simply the sad reality of how our country is structured.
Pryce and her husband should never have been locked up for their crimes. This is a controversial statement for some, who relished the novel sight of the once-powerful being jailed in a country that locks up so many powerless people. But the real answer is that thousands of other prisoners – unlike Pryce, voiceless, airbrushed out of existence – should not be locked up either.
There are nearly 85,000 people crammed into English and Welsh jails, more than anywhere else in Western Europe. As the Howard League for Penal Reform points out, imprisoning so many non-violent people is hugely expensive. Prisons cost the taxpayer £2.2bn a year; each new prison place costs us £170,000, and on top of that the cost per prisoner each year is £41,000. Making those who have broken the law but who have not murdered, raped or maimed take part in community service surely makes better sense than the costly failure of prison.
It is certainly true that the state is picky about who it locks up. The criminal justice system is intended to crack down on the misdemeanours of the poor, but it is there to allow or even facilitate the far more socially destructive behaviour of the rich. Recently, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, suggested extending sentences for benefit fraud to up to 10 years. Here is a crime that costs the taxpayer £1.2bn – or worth less than 1 per cent of social security spending; compare it to the £25 bn lost to the Exchequer through tax avoidance. Ah, comes the cocky response, but benefit fraud is illegal and tax avoidance isn’t. Well, quite. Accountancy firms go the Treasury, help draw up tax legislation, then go off and advise wealthy clients about how to avoid it. One set of rules for the top; one set of rules for everybody else.
Or take the fact that black people are nearly half as likely to take drugs as white people, and yet more than six times more likely to be stopped and searched on suspicion of possession. It gets worse. According to drugs charity Release, a black person found with cannabis is five times more likely to be charged than a white person; and while 44 per cent of white people found with cocaine are charged, it rises to 78 per cent with black people.
There is a term for this, and it is “racism”. It means potentially life-destroying consequences as predominantly young black people are prevented from getting work because of a criminal record. And here is a reality that we practically take for granted: that while we have a criminal justice system that comes crashing down on young black men with weed in their left pocket, none of those who plunged the world into economic catastrophe have faced a tap on the shoulder from the Old Bill.
For all the talk of how hard it must be for the privileged to end up in prison, it is far worse for the average inmate. The likes of Pryce and Chris Huhne have access to the best lawyers, ample funds and good contacts, while many first-time prisoners lack friends or family who can support them. On the whole, we are locking up mentally distressed people with chaotic backgrounds. More than seven out of 10 prisoners have two or more mental health issues; women inmates are a stunning 35-times more likely to have such a condition than non-imprisoned women. Around a quarter of prisoners spent some time in care before they turned 18. These are people who have been failed, and at such a grotesque cost to us all.
Indeed, if the point of prison is to snuff out crime, it is an abject failure. As the Howard League points out, reoffending rates remain above 60 per cent, and nearly three quarters of young prisoners end up breaking the law again. The fact that so many are unable to find work and build a secure existence is undoubtedly a key reason why. Only just over a quarter of men sentenced to less than a year in prison find work; for women, it is less than 10 per cent. There are no book deals for such ex-prisoners.
It is difficult to have a rational public debate about prison. Fear of crime has risen, even as crime rates have fallen. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to be a victim of crime. Not that often hard-nosed attitudes towards crime are simply mass hysteria. Being a victim of crime can be terrifying, humiliating and infuriating.
And that is why the debate has to focus on making us all safer and happier. Prison doesn’t achieve that, even as crime rates fall across the Western world because of trends ranging from demographic shifts to better protection of personal valuables. We need a shift to community services for non-violent crimes. It not only saves the taxpayer money: the evidence suggests it may be more effective at reducing re-offending. We have to stop the criminalisation of young people – disproportionately from ethnic minority backgrounds – because of recreational drugs use.
There is desperate need for improving support for those with mental distress, as well as rescuing children languishing in care by sorting out our broken adoption process. We need a transition from prison focused on rebuilding lives, not least by finding ex-inmates secure work. The economic insecurities that, in some cases, help to drive destructive criminal activity have to be addressed, too. We cannot tolerate any longer a justice system that hammers those at the bottom, but ignores behaviour that is far more damaging to society at the top.
At best, prison deals with the symptoms of our profoundly unjust society, and in many cases makes them worse. Vicky Pryce is certainly far from emblematic of those locked away. But now she has been given a platform others are denied, it is as good an opportunity as any to challenge our shameful, broken criminal justice system.