Leading article: At breaking point

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The Independent Online

Chronic overcrowding means many prisoners are shifted from prison to prison - something Ms Owers describes as a "horrific game of musical cells". A shortage of staff means they are routinely being denied exercise. A state of squalor and indignity prevails in many cells. Inmates are also killing themselves and self-harming at a disturbing rate - many while on remand. Last year there were 95 prison suicides in England and Wales, equalling the highest year on record in 2002. So far this year, 50 inmates have taken their lives.

The most important objective, which Ms Owers rightly identifies, is to reduce the numbers being sent to prison so that there is less strain on the system. Those non-violent criminals with drug or mental health problems are better dealt with in the community. And Ms Owers is also right to identify the root of the problem as the hardline rhetoric of Government ministers and politicians in general on law and order.

The judiciary is often characterised by politicians and the right-wing press as being "soft" on criminals. But if anything, the opposite is true. Judges are sending more people to jail than ever before. And the reason is that politicians are putting pressure on them to do so, by consistently emphasising the value of custodial punishment over community rehabilitation. This creates a "lock 'em up" climate that it is nigh on impossible for the courts to resist.

The present prison system is very obviously not working. There exists a "revolving door" between imprisonment and reoffending. Some 58 per cent of prisoners are reconvicted within two years of being released. Nor is prison in any way a "cheap" option. It costs around £27,500 a year to keep each prisoner in custody. It is time we demanded better value for money from this failing public service.

Reducing the number of women in custody during the past 12 months has led to a welcome reduction in the number of female suicides in prisons. The same policy must now be implemented in male prisons. Reducing overcrowding would also enable proper resources to be devoted to education, drug treatment and counselling. Rehabilitation should be the fundamental goal of our prison service. The policy of cramming ever more people into our jails is cruel, counter-productive and unsustainable.

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