Leading article: The bitter fruits of a failing policy

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The Independent Online

The warning lights of our prison service have been flashing red for some time now. Last year, our jails reached full capacity, forcing the Home Office to use police cells to hold prisoners. Then came this summer's strike by prison officers, a protest as much about conditions as pay. And now a report by the Forum for Preventing Deaths in Custody has collated the number of deaths in prisons, police cells and secure hospitals across the country for the first time. The study shows that between 500 and 600 people die every year in state custody. It is a shameful total.

The report argues that many of the deaths could be avoided through better design of cells and improved monitoring. That is true, but the prison service needs considerably more reform than that. The first priority must be to bring the number of prisoners down. England and Wales have a total jail population of 81,000, the highest in Western Europe. This is not because Britons are inherently more criminal than other Europeans. Our crime rate has actually been steady over the past decade. Even violent crime has been relatively static. What has happened is that prisons in this country have been turned into social dustbins for the mentally ill, drug addicts and the homeless. Prison is not the right place for such people. And the resultant overcrowding is impeding the ability of prison officers to do their job of rehabilitating and monitoring offenders.

This is essentially a political issue. We are in this hole because, for more than a decade, government ministers have been pressuring judges to impose longer sentences on offenders and to send more criminals to jail. The Government has neglected sensible policies such as greater investment in drug treatment, rehabilitation schemes and community punishments because they have found it easier to pander to popular prejudices and fears about crime. To put it bluntly, there are no votes in improving jails.

But this approach is no longer sustainable. There is simply no more room in our prisons. New ones cannot be built in time. And re-offending rates for those released are catastrophically high. Meanwhile, as this report shows, deaths in custody are at an intolerable level. The question is how long the Government is prepared to persevere with a policy that is as ineffective as it is inhumane.