Leading article: Crime and pernicious punishment

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The Independent Online

The tragic story of the Bates family, which we outline today, is further proof of the inhumane conditions that exist in our prisons. Yesterday an inquest jury condemned Brockhill prison for a series of failings that resulted in the suicide of 19-year-old Anne-Marie Bates. Ms Bates, who had just given birth to her third child, was remanded in custody in late July 2001 on a robbery charge. The jury was told that the judge recommended that she be put in a bail hostel; instead she was placed in an adult jail. A month later Ms Bates was found hanged in her cell. The jury condemned the fact that no care plan was made for her, despite the fact that she was identified as being a suicide risk.

But we have since learned that Ms Bates' older brother had previously attempted to hang himself at a young offender's institution, and been left in a vegetative state. Her younger brother subsequently committed suicide out of grief. Has ever one family been so let down by our prison system?

Yet the pernicious idea that "prison works" shows no signs of loosening its grip on government policy. Last week, the Home Secretary, John Reid, announced 8,000 extra prison places. This was presented as part of a wider effort to deal with overcrowding. Mr Reid also proclaimed his desire to cut the number of vulnerable women and mentally ill people in prison. But where this Government is concerned, one should pay attention to what ministers do, not what they say. And more jail places - that will swell our already bulging prison population even further - should cause alarm bells to sound.

Mr Reid, like his predecessors at the Home Office, still fails to understand that urgent action needs to be taken to reduce the overall numbers being held in our jails. Ms Bates was a victim of our overstretched, unreformed prison culture. She is by no means alone. In the past four years, 36 women have killed themselves in prisons. Nor is she likely to be the last. The number of female inmates has almost trebled in the past decade.

Indeed, prison cramming has taken on its own momentum for both sexes. Nowhere in Western Europe jails more of its population than England and Wales. Since 1993 the prison population has risen 85 per cent to 77,000 (even before Mr Reid's 8,000 extra places). Most of these inmates are not violent or hardened criminals, but petty thieves, drug addicts and the mentally ill. A spell in prison does nothing to reform them. Almost 60 per cent of them will be reconvicted within two years of release.

What they require are non-custodial public punishment sentences and mental health treatment. What they - and we, the public - are getting are the discredited penal methods of the past. And they are not working.