Leading Article: Why our prisons are not working

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The Independent Online
"PRISON WORKS" must rank as one of the most fatuous slogans ever devised and, in terms of its persuasive power, one of the least effective. Michael Howard, the villain of this particular piece, adopted the air of an impatient head teacher explaining the laws of logic to a class of dim pupils when he pointed out that if criminals were in prison, they could not be committing crimes against people outside.

The slogan's crassness was all the more apparent because it was invented for the purpose of countering one of the cleverest and most persuasive slogans recently deployed in politics, Labour's claim to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime".

Now, however, the superior slogan is being tested against the harsh world of reality. The prison population, which was around 45,000 throughout the Conservative years, with a slight bump upwards in the late Eighties, started to rise when Mr Howard became Home Secretary in 1993. It turned into a trend which cannot be easily or quickly reversed. Especially when we consider both how committed the Labour government is to the first part of its slogan, and the inevitably long timetable implied by the second part.

By the time of the election last year the prison population in Britain had shot past 60,000. Now there are 65,000 people in prison, with the figure expected to rise to between 83,000 and 93,000 in seven years' time.

This is the background against which to read yesterday's confirmation by the Board of Visitors at Wormwood Scrubs that brutality by prison staff against inmates is something which "goes on". Overcrowding is a serious problem which, combined with low morale among large parts of the Prison Service, is bound to create breakdowns of discipline of all kinds.

Jack Straw, who has inherited Mr Howard's trembling pressure-cooker, urgently needs to ask why Britain locks up a greater proportion of its population than any other European country except Portugal, and why that proportion is rising so fast. As Mr Howard might explain in pedantic tones to his dim class, recorded crime is no longer rising, so it is because criminals who appear in court are more likely to be locked up and to be locked up for longer than before. Partly, this is the result of more lock- 'em-up legislation, and partly because the courts have responded to the climate of lock-'em-up rhetoric in which they work.

To Mr Straw's credit, he resisted the knee-jerk populism of the Tory "three strikes and you're out" proposals for burglary, imposing compulsory jail terms on third-time offenders. And he has also changed his line on electronic tagging. Home Office plans for 30,000 offenders a year to serve community sentences under curfews enforced by tags should be treated with scepticism - not least because the assumption behind tagging is that criminals behave rationally - but tagging could be a way of unwinding some of the hard-line rhetoric without appearing soft on crime.

However, many thousands too many people are still destined to end up behind bars before anything resembling action on the "causes of crime" will show through. Even if all the pledges of ending social exclusion, tackling truancy, ending the pressure on boys to behave badly, take us eventually to the promised land, in the meantime far too many will be brutalised, physically and emotionally, by a prison system which plainly is not working.

There are two groups of prisoners which should be Mr Straw's priorities. The first is the 8,000 remand prisoners, an eighth of the total, all of them innocent until proved guilty, many of them receiving a crash course in drug use or the habits of crime. Labour has promised to speed up the average 13-week delays for young offenders, but older offenders matter too, and at the very least speeding up youth cases should not be at the expense of the rest of the system.

Then there are the 8,000 black people, eight times over-represented in the prison population in relation to their numbers in the country as a whole. Five of the eight prisoners alleging brutality in the Scrubs are black. There is evidence that black criminals are more likely to receive custodial sentences than white ones, although most of the over-representation occurs before the courtroom is reached. Mr Straw said in a pre-election interview with this newspaper that one of the three legacies for which he wanted to be remembered was successfully tackling racism. The other two were incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights and "catching and dealing effectively with" more criminals. Well, we have heard plenty about those two. Let us hear more about being tough on racial inequality and tough on its causes.