Must we copy everything American?

The Home Secretary is seeking inspiration from a crime policy that clearly fails, claims Nick Cohen strap or head)
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AMERICA'S love affair with imprisonment will soon make it the undisputed punishment champion of the world. There are so many Americans in jail it takes some imaginative sympathy to get beyond the statistics and comprehend how much liberty has been lost in the land of the free.

Yet this is the country to which Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, repeatedly looks for new ideas on how to tackle crime: private prisons and the US security companies that operate them are already here and, if Mr Howard has his way, military-style "boot camps" and electronic tagging will follow.

The bare figures from the country whose penal policies Mr Howard admires so much are as follows. On 30 June last year there were1,012,851 inmates in US state and federal prisons. In proportion to its population, the United States locks up five times as many people as England and Wales, which have 50,000 people behind bars.

The only countries in the world known to have a proportionately higher prison population are parts of the former Soviet Union. But their leadership is unlikely to last. The US "three strikes and you are out" laws - which require anyone with two previous convictions for felonies to be jailed for a minimum of 25 years when they commit a third - have led to predictions that itsprison population will rise to 2 million by the end of the century.

If the boot camps and "shock incarceration" centres are added to the state, federal and small county jails, America has 1.4 million criminals locked up in prisons of one type or another - equal to the combined populations of Manchester and Birmingham. Those on Death Row face being electrocuted, hanged or injected with a lethal drug. All the punishments are in vain. America remains one of the most violent places in the world. Its crime rate is so high - 10 times as high as Britain's - that the only sensible comparison is with countries torn by civil war rather than with other Western democracies. In Algeria, where Muslim fundamentalists are fighting the unelected government, 6,388 combatants were killed in 1994. In the US, which is nominally at peace, 24,526 murders were recorded by the FBI in 1993. Compare that with the 3,000 killed in the 25 years of Ulster's troubles and draw your own conclusions about President Clinton's qualifications to intervene in Northern Ireland.

Even the Americans do not seem to believe that their penal policies are working. The only answers they have are for wilder and crueller punishments - floggings, public executions, and the return of chain gangs, which are being proposed in several states. Yet Mr Howard vociferously endorses the American belief that "prison works" by deterring criminals and taking them out of circulation. This is essentially a free-market view of crime: that criminals are rational consumers who will steal and murder unless they reckon the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

Mr Howard never stops to consider the special factors that may explain why England, for all its problems, has only 550 homicides a year: a strained but still functioning welfare state, strained but still reasonably good race relations, strict control of firearms and the remnants of values other than money worship.

Now, we have new examples of how Mr Howard continues to admire American policies, even when evidence that he is misguided stares him in the face. Last week, he announced that contracts to produce electronic tags would be awarded in an attempt to introduce the American idea of computer-monitored house arrest - even though a previous pilot project five years ago was a costly failure.

But the most extraordinary example concerns the boot camps, which also echo a failed British experiment: the "short, sharp shock treatment" of the early 1980s. As we report today, the Home Office Prison Service has not only suppressed a study by its own officers on boot camps but misled Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, about the very existence of the research.

The study found that everything Mr Howard believes about US boot camps is wrong. Boot camps come from the army. Criminals are put through a tough physical regime and get "in your face" discipline from bawling instructors. The camps are meant to reform inmates, save money and reduce overcrowding in the mainstream prisons.

The Home Office found they did none of these things. On release, inmates from the camps were just as likely to get into trouble as people who had gone to ordinary prisons; the camps were expensive to run; and, far from reducing the prison population, they simply increased the numbers locked up because the courts tended to fill them with petty criminals who would not otherwise have gone to jail.

Further, the civil servants pointed out that even if the camps worked in America they would not necessarily work in Britain. They noted that there are "great cultural differences between the US and the UK". The researchers found it "striking" that American prisoners meekly submitted to the humiliations of military discipline. They explained this "deferential" attitude by pointing to the militaristic nature of US society. The United States is still a world power with a large standing army. Millions of Americans have gone through basic military training and the children of the upper middle class are frequently educated in military academies. Britain is less conformist, they hinted. "We found it difficult to envisage some of the boot camp programmes we observed being transferred to this country without serious control problems," Mr Howard's advisers wrote. In other words, insubordinate British prisoners could riot if the Home Secretary presses ahead.

So why, if American crime policy is a manifest failure and Britain's crime problems so different, do the Conservatives keep looking across the Atlantic for inspiration? One reason, advanced by the economist Will Hutton in his best-selling book, The State We're In, is that since 1979 the Conservatives have been trying to import the economic and social policies of the American right. Britain, he argues, is being turned into a pale imitation of the US; it has now got American social problems without the compensation of American dynamism.

But it perhaps goes further than that. Cabinet members like Mr Howard and John Major were brought up in the 1950s and 1960s when America had colour television and we didn't, when America raced to put a man on the moon, when only America had skyscrapers. They grew up with the belief that the United States represented modernity, that, if anything happened in America, it would eventually happen here. Now, however, American penal policy appears to be rushing headlong towards the Middle Ages. It is time that Mr Howard and his colleagues allowed their prejudices to be challenged by the facts.