Leading article: A vicious circle of short-termism and neglect

Share

If we were to compile a list of the most egregious failings of the New Labour government, prisons and prison policy would have to come near to the top. Nine and half years after winning power, there is still not the slightest sign that ministers have come close to getting to grips with the problem. The evidence rather suggests the opposite.

It is well-known that prisons, like the treatment of offenders in general, tend to be one of the least popular areas of public spending. Hospitals, schools, public transport, recreation facilities - indeed, almost anything - takes precedence over spending on offenders in the public mind. With historically large parliamentary majorities, however, Tony Blair's government had a chance to address this neglected cause. Yet the state of our prisons remains a disgrace, and innovation, such as there has been, has been halting and patchy.

The statement on the latest prison crisis - expected as early as today - from the Home Office will show how far the Government has fallen short. The almost 80,000 places in prisons in England and Wales are full. Inmates are being moved around to accommodate the growing numbers receiving custodial sentences. A leaked memo suggested that more people could be moved to open prisons, with the risk that rates of absconding and drug use in the open prisons would grow.

Among other options apparently under consideration are the earlier deportation of foreign offenders and the use of expensive police cells. The only option ruled out in the quest for emergency prison places is a return to the notorious prison ship. It was sold last year, soon after its closure. Meanwhile, ministers offer the "consoling" news that another 8,000 prison places are in the pipeline, 200 of which will be available before the end of the year.

All this is a far cry from what New Labour seemed to be saying when it pledged to be tough not just on crime, but on the causes of crime. At the time, Tony Blair needed to convince a sceptical electorate that a Labour government shared their concern about crime. But Britain already locks up far more offenders proportionately than most of our European neighbours, and our rates of incarceration have been rising, even though the incidence of serious crime has not.

The rise in the overall prison population comes despite the fact that more money has been allocated for drug treatment and rehabilitation, and despite the increased use of community service orders and other prison alternatives, such as antisocial behaviour orders. And a major reason is the scandalously high rate of reoffending. The idea that the prison experience itself could contribute to the reoffending rates, however, is an argument that is too rarely heard.

There is a vicious circle here that this Government has not tried nearly hard enough to break. It has responded to the public's fear of crime by restricting the sentencing discretion of judges. At the same time, it has consistently failed to fund the increase in prison places that are needed to keep pace with harsher sentencing. Overcrowding means that prisoners are often moved around at short notice, which makes rehabilitation, in the form of education and training programmes, nigh impossible - even if funding were adequate, which it is not.

We would like to believe that when the Home Office sets out its response to the latest prison crisis, it will propose solutions that go beyond the simple expedient of more prison places. Precedent suggests, however, this is too much to expect from a government that has emulated its Conservative predecessor in stressing its toughness on crime, at the expense of its supposedly equal concern about the causes.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz