Listen, minister, prison doesn't work

Michael Howard's own civil servants are exasperated by his 'tougher than thou' contest with Tony Blair
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The Home Secretary is ridding himself of troublesome judges. The admirable Judge Stephen Tumim is not having his contract renewed as Chief Inspector of Prisons. Lord Justice Woolf's groundbreaking report on prison regimes in the aftermath of the Strangeways riot has been all but binned. In the old days, judges could be relied on to be stern and punitive, but now they are thought too soft.

Enter the new broom, retired General Sir John Learmont, who is due to report shortly on the Whitemoor and Parkhurst escapes. The word inside the Home Office is that his report, now completed, will call for a stern new military-type command structure within prisons and the prison service. The 134 prison establishments will be pulled into line, with less diversity, more rules and less freedom of action for governors. There are fears that harsh new security measures for category A prisoners will spill over into the treatment of all prisoners.

This is just another step on the short, sharp route march, begun in 1993, back into the dark ages of penal policy. Like the Grand Old Duke of York, Michael Howard leads his tattered and reluctant battalions up the same old pointless, expensive hill and surely, sooner or later, down again, trailing his discredited banner emblazoned with "Prison works!"

Inside the Home Office, despair about their political masters has turned to overt cynicism. "The ministers are hell, the policies are a disgrace, the only game in town is survival."

Wearily, those who monitored the previous well-predicted failures of tagging and short sharp shocks find themselves about to do exactly the same things again, as a new round of tagging and boot camps gets up and running.

A story in the Mail on Sunday's front page blared out "Law and order 'wets' face axe at Home Office". It is not exactly true but not without foundation, either, for who, ask wary officials, gave the newspaper the information to write the story? It's an old trick of Tory ministers in trouble to rail against a phantom "liberal establishment" within their own departments.

The Home Office is by no stretch of the imagination infiltrated with liberals. They are pragmatists - practical civil servants whose work is systematically ignored. The output of the research department is still published, but quietly, in opaque language. Such was a recent little-publicised document, Research Finding No 12. It showed that prison does not work. Comparing like offenders, those sent to prison were rather more likely to reoffend than those given probation. (Prison costs pounds 1,900 a month, while probation costs pounds 105 and community service pounds 100.)

So what does "Prison works!" mean? It means it satisfies public demand for retribution, an important function. But do the public know what retribution costs, and how little effect it has on crime? Do they realise that most criminals know less than the general public about sentencing tariffs, so increased sentences are unlikely to deter them? Would the public be as keen on so much retribution, with Britain always topping the European imprisonment league, if their leaders told them there were cheaper ways of reducing crime?

Michael Howard, justifying his "Prison works" policy, has been looking to America for inspiration. While our crime rate leaps upwards, in the US it has remained static for the past 10 years. In that time the Americans have increased their prison population by 300 per cent, with 1.5 million prisoners, at a cost of $40bn. Astonishingly, one-third of all black males between the ages of 18 and 35 are in prison right now, which would have been the envy of apartheid South Africa. So, says Mr Howard, this must mean containment works. Keep people off the streets so there are fewer around to commit crimes; stands to reason, doesn't it?

However, Home Office research shows that it would require 25 per cent more people to be imprisoned for each 1 per cent reduction in crime. It does work, in other words, but at unimaginable cost, with a prison population so colossal that the social dislocation would be terrifying. Only 3 per cent of crimes committed ever reach the courts, which explains why prison numbers have such a minimal effect on the crime rate.

But that is the direction we are being marched in with blithe disregard to cost or effect. In March, the prison population reached its highest ever point at 51,678 in England and Wales, 20 per cent more than in 1993 when Mr Howard took office. Everywhere else effectiveness is monitored, in the NHS and schools, so why not in prison policy? Why doesn't Mr Howard have to explain what he is gaining for every extra pound of our money spent on prisons?

There is another factor in the US model, one that Home Office officials draw attention to: US crime rates stopped rising as the Head Start programme, founded by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, came to fruition. The scheme sent 10 per cent of the most deprived four- and five-year-olds into two years of intensive education, teaching them how to learn and how to think. Some 700,000 children are now in the programme, which has survived the Nixon/Reagan/Bush eras because no one could deny its worth.

The children have been followed for 30 years: 50 per cent of equivalent deprived children dropped out of school, while 33 per cent of Head Start children did. Thirty-two per cent of the control children are on welfare compared with 17 per cent of Head Start kids. And while 30 per cent of Head Starters were ever arrested, 50 per cent of the rest were convicted. For every dollar spent on Head Start, $7 have been saved. Now, can we hope that the Home Secretary will listen to his own research department and arise at the next Conservative Party conference with a new rallying cry? "Nursery school works!"

Many observers lay some of the blame for our present parlous penal policy at Tony Blair's door. With the 1991 Criminal Justice Act came a more liberal policy under Douglas Hurd's auspices. Prisons were being emptied of petty offenders, fine defaulters and those not a danger to society. But in thundered Mr Blair, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", ruthlessly stirring up national anxiety. It was a clever catch-phrase, for who could fault him on it? It nodded to the liberals with "causes" but played hard to the CrimeWatch fans. It distanced him brilliantly from Old Labour, but at a high cost. It sent the Tories into a spin, led to Mr Howard's appointment, the sharp rise in prison population, the locking up of children in secure units, young offenders in boot camps and cutbacks in probation and prisons becoming more punitive. All that is money wasted which could have been spent with measurable good effect on prevention.

Worst of all, the Blair/Howard "Who's toughest?" contest encourages public ignorance and prejudice. It fuels a fear of crime far beyond what is rational and creates a belief in quack remedies. When a prime minister can boast with know-nothing glee of "understanding a little less", what hope of effective, cost-efficient crime policies?