You've nothing to gain but your chains

Here's an idea, Mr Howard. Instead of locking up criminals in expensive prisons, why not shackle them to the nearest lamppost?
There are some people - I would guess around 100 per cent of the readers of this newspaper and all their friends and relatives - who are deeply shocked by the notion of women giving birth in shackles. Indeed, by attempting to defend the policy of chaining pregnant prisoners like dogs, Ann Widdicombe last week pulled off a remarkable feat: she made herself even more unpopular than Michael Portillo.

I admit even I was momentarily appalled - mainly at the sheer incompetence of those responsible for this public relations fiasco. Yes, people escape from the slammer - they always will. After all, if men could escape from Devil's Island, Alcatraz and Colditz, then there is no such thing as an escape-proof nick. But the Home Office has never really recovered from the great escapes from Whitemoor and Parkhurst. I don't know where Michael Howard has been since the shackles story blew up (something of a great escape on his part), but his fingerprints are all over this. It's the perfect Conservative conference gag: "Now that's what I call hard labour!"

Obviously, it is absurd to handcuff a woman who is giving birth; here I am in agreement with Independent readers. Even one who thinks she might be going into labour is unlikely to do a runner. The Home Office line is that 20 female prisoners have escaped from hospitals in the last five years. But only one of them was pregnant. It seems quite incredible that her foolhardy escapade - she jumped from a first-floor window - should have been the basis for a policy as unpalatable as this.

Nevertheless, to react with mere righteous indignation is ingenuous. For there is no denying that there is a certain logic (albeit somewhat Swiftian logic) to the reintroduction of the shackle - even, dare I say it, for mothers-to-be.

Our society's system of criminal justice relies heavily on imprisonment - too heavily, in my view. A lot of us are, have been or will be behind bars at some point in our lives. Though it is still short of its 1988 peak, the prison population is high at around 50,000, or 0.15 per cent of the adult population - the second highest in the European Union.

And this despite the fact that less than 30 per cent of crimes are ever "cleared up"; despite the fact that a rising proportion of offenders never even make it into court; and despite the fact that less than 15 per cent of those convicted actually receive custodial sentences. If we sent as many of those convicted to prison as we did in 1900, the prison population would be four times larger!

Who are today's cons? Not, on the whole, the serial killers and rapists whose crimes make the front pages. In fact, the majority of prisoners have committed crimes against property or involving drugs - less than a third are in for crimes against the person. And most prisoners are serving sentences of less than four years. In this respect, the women in the shackles were typical. Sue Edwards (handcuffed throughout the birth of her baby girl) was serving three years for burglary. Annette Walker (shackled for 10 out of the 12 hours she was in labour) was jailed for four years after snatching a handbag containing pounds 5,100 - far from her first offence. Kathleen MacKay (chained for 24 hours a day in hospital when 22 weeks pregnant) was jailed for shoplifting.

In only two respects are they untypical, the fact that they are women, who are still a tiny minority (around 10 per cent ) of prisoners; and the fact that they were pregnant.

Locking up the likes of Sue, Annette and Kathleen costs money. Contrary to popular belief, the Tories have not starved the Prison Service of cash: on the contrary, expenditure on prisons has roughly trebled since 1982, and the ratio of inmates per prison officer has been halved. And yet the impression is inescapable that the prison system is not delivering (apart from a few babies, that is) Crime - or rather public anxiety about it - shows no real sign of abating, rates of re-offending by those released from prison are depressingly high.

Which is why the policy of shackles - at first sight so repugnant - is in fact an unrecognised stroke of genius. The only real mistake the Home Office has made has been to use shackles so sparingly - as a mere extension to imprisonment for those (such as pregnant women) who temporarily have to be let out of their cells, instead of as a complete alternative to incarceration.

This is my modest proposal (I leave the think-tank policy wonks to work out the details). Stop building new prisons; in fact, start demolishing them. Instead of locking up convicted criminals in expensive asylums where they merely teach one another even worse habits, simply shackle them.

It does not matter where. As the recent cases of manacled mothers show, shackles can be worn whatever the individual happens to be doing. And that is just the beauty of my proposal. Criminals will be able to lead virtually normal lives after they have been sentenced. They will merely have to endure the stigma and discomfort of doing everything - signing on, doing the shopping, betting on the horses, going down the pub - in shackles.

I emphasise particularly the stigma which attaches to wearing a chain, even without a large black metal ball attached. Annette Walker's letter published in the Guardian last week made this adundantly clear. "I was in pain, embarrassed, crying ... I wouldn't want (my children) to see what I am having to go through as they couldn't or wouldn't understand or believe this is happening to a human being who has never hurt anyone in her life physically. ... I hid under the sheet sobbing. ... The shame I felt in these chains ... I just wanted to die. ... It is so wrong, I have never been a burden to social services ..."

Well, no, Annette you didn't hurt anyone physically. You robbed them. Which is why you weren't a burden on the social services but a burden on the Prison Service. The fact that something finally made you feel shame - which implicitly you don't feel about being in prison - is really rather impressive.

The more I think about this idea, the more I like it. Shackles, after all, are inexpensive compared with prison cells. And there is no particular need for people to be shackled to prison officers, who cannot be expected to spend 12 hours at a stretch in the delivery suite every time a convict takes it into her head to give birth. No, lampposts will do for minor offenders. Perhaps we might even consider some purpose-built stocks, appropriately located in town centres.

Are you reading this, Mr Howard? Are you following my train of thought? Because I'm offering you two election-winning slogans for the price of one, you know. "That's the sound of the mums - working on the chain gang." And: "Burglars of Britain, unite. You have nothing to gain but your chains."