What's the point in just locking up these Junkies?

We should think about reclassifying a good third of the nation's prisons as drug therapy centres
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The Independent Online

The urgency with which the prison service is seeking further ships to moor off the shores of Britain for the incarceration of criminals has reportedly stepped up a notch this week. For years the prison population has been rising, with demands for the severest of custodial sentences entirely unmatched by much interest in what these custodial sentences might set out to achieve.

The urgency with which the prison service is seeking further ships to moor off the shores of Britain for the incarceration of criminals has reportedly stepped up a notch this week. For years the prison population has been rising, with demands for the severest of custodial sentences entirely unmatched by much interest in what these custodial sentences might set out to achieve.

In the last fortnight, the country's population of prisoners has increased by a further, seam-popping 700. There are now 70,894 souls imprisoned in Britain, 7,000 more than the official capacity of prisons in England and Wales. And guess what? All those desperate, anarchic types, cooped up together in awful conditions and without enough staff to control, let alone rehabilitate, them, are not in the happiest, most gentle, of states.

The Home Office has confirmed that there have been three riots in three overcrowded prisons in the last week. Around 30 inmates went on the rampage in Guys Marsh young offenders' institution in Dorset last Thursday, injuring one prison officer and damaging six cells. On Monday, 25 prisoners in Lindholme prison, near Doncaster, refused to return to their cells and barricaded themselves in a communal area until their surrender at 4am on Tuesday morning. That night, at Ranby prison in Nottinghamshire, 48 prisoners lit fires and turned on taps, causing damage to 50 cells and prompting the intervention of riot squads and dogs. Whatever we think people should be doing with their time in prison, it definitely isn't this.

The most flinty-hearted authoritarians among us – and there seem to be many – are clear about what prison is for. According to them, prison simply protects us, the decent, from them, the inhuman. But surely, after many years of locking up offenders, it is becoming apparent even to the most vengeful of punishers that despite the fact our prison population has never been higher, we are not so tremendously well protected at all. Certainly, while there have never been more criminals in there, there are still one hell of a lot of them out here.

There has been much rumination in recent months about whether crime is really rising, or whether it is merely fear of crime that is rising. Distinctions are drawn between crime-crime, which is dropping, and street-crime, which is on the up. Questions are asked about whether it is fear of punishment that deters criminals, or fear of detection. If detection rates are low, the perfectly sensible argument goes, then however massive the punishment, the likelihood of never being called to account is a significant factor.

Then there are the schemes designed for taking pressure off the prison service, at least until some nice new prisons can be finished. Tagging, community service, drug treatment and testing orders – all are thrust at magistrates and judges as alternatives to a sentence – except of course when mobile phones, those indispensable items that we all managed perfectly well without 10 years ago, are involved.

There has been much discussion, too, of whether it is the courts that are failing, the police that are failing, the prison service that is failing, the Government that is failing, the parents that are failing, or even whether it is nursery teachers who are failing, by not noticing that the difficult three-year-old in their midst is already heading straight for the criminal justice system.

On and on it goes, with each fragment of a failing system defending itself, bleating for more resources, and blaming the next department along. I wrote for this paper last week about how I'd caught a street junkie burgling my home. She spent five months on remand until, in a lurid five-day trial involving at least 25 people at all times, it was eventually decided that she was an addict and needed treatment.

The lawyers who have commented on this protracted and farcical farrago say that what I experienced during the trial – because this person was found guilty – was the criminal justice system working "perfectly". I think they must be demented. Literally hundreds of thousands of pounds, and months of time, resources, talent and energy went in to establishing what had been utterly, painfully, screamingly obvious to me and to the police within seconds of laying eyes on the woman.

And it's worse than that, because during the time that elapsed, the defendant's ability to become drug-free was severely eroded. The drug addict's greatest friend and enemy is denial. Here we have a system that not only encourages literal denial – sentences are so punitive now that those who are caught would be fools not to take a chance and plead not guilty – but also provides defence lawyers beholden to give all their help in constructing an edifice of denial.

The money that was spent on the burglar's incarceration and trial could have seen her spend several months in the Priory hanging out with the stars. Instead, now her guilt has been established, there is not a single institution in the country specifically geared to treating criminal addicts. All that energy and money spent on establishing guilt would be better spent writing off the charges on the basis of diminished responsibility due to drug addiction, and spent on tackling the actual problem instead.

The weird thing is that there's barely a person left in Britain who doesn't know exactly what that problem really is. How could we not when it's staring us all in the face? The problem is addiction to hard drugs. The solution? It is residential drug treatment, intensive therapy, and halfway-house help in gradually reintroducing people to a society they have proved themselves ill-equipped to cope with; then lifelong self-help in the form of attendance at Narcotics Anonymous. If all else fails, they must receive their drugs on prescription so that they can at least manage minimal stability in their nightmarish lives. Sadly, we're nowhere near achieving anything like this.

There is much lip-service paid to the idea that since almost 50 per cent of all crime is drug-related, that problem must be specifically tackled. But drug treatment and testing orders – especially when they are not combined with a custodial sentence – are not much more than lip service. If you're a criminal cannabis addict (ie a figment of the imagination of dangerous ignorance), then testing works because cannabis stays in the body for a month at a time. But if smack's your poison, then you just have to go cold turkey for 24 hours before a fortnightly test and you're home free.As for the treatment, this sometimes is no more than a chat with a counsellor for a few hours a week. Absolutely useless. For most addicts, denial isn't broken until weeks or months of intensive residential therapy have been completed.

At least there are signs that we may at last be stepping the right direction. The news that a new government scheme will fast-track using offenders into therapy is the most sensible breakthrough ever on this issue. But unless the quality of treatment is improved and its availability hugely expanded, then it will prove to be nothing more than yet another fig-leaf.

Find ships for offenders, by all means. But instead of setting up yet another body-storing prison, make the barges into top-notch treatment centres. And think about reclassifying a good third of the nation's prisons as drug therapy centres too. It really is the only way. The war on drugs is over. Let's now call an amnesty on addiction.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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