It is a curious feature of English civil evolution that while we continue to accept the use of imprisonment as the toughest sanction for criminals, we simultaneously acknowledge that captivity is not always the perfect solution for those we don’t want to see returning to our jails after serving their time.
Having long ago abandoned transportation and hard labour, we simply trust in the idea that penal “reform” is ongoing and that state-sanctioned punishment, while a harsh regimen, has moved on from the correctional brutality of the Bridewell or Newgate prisons.
But beyond the academic analysis of what our prisons are for, what they look like on the inside, and whether the risk of imprisonment suitably influences crime rates, there is a dangerous level of political negligence surrounding the true state of England’s prisons.
Prison safety, protection of the vulnerable, education, preparation for a life outside: all of these are the responsibility of the prison authorities and sadly such work is being put at risk by dwindling financial resources which have led to overcrowding and a shortage of trained, experienced prison staff.
Sadly we have been here before. But the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, seems unable to accept that there is an austerity-driven policy failure this time round, which is driving up one statistic that cannot and should not be ignored – prison suicide rates.
Although Mr Grayling recently pointed to the numbers of assaults and cases of self-harm as falling, and claimed that extra prison places were being built, he admitted that the Government was not in full control of the situation. Though it attempted to dismiss this as a seasonal blip, Grayling’s Justice Department must understand that if prisoners and prison staff are being put at risk, then concern for the public’s safety is not far away.
The interview we publish today with Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, paints a picture of an accelerating crisis. Too many prisons have been closed, too many prison staff have been laid off. And it will be years before the new facilities that have been ordered open their doors to new inmates. So what can be done now?
Mr Grayling ought to accept that the pressures on prisons, in particular the number of offenders being locked up, can be eased. The demand on prisons can be lessened if a jail sentence in our courts is not always a judge’s reflex, especially for non-violent offenders.
Whatever immediate steps are necessary to solve this crisis, we should not ignore the wider opportunity for reform here. Too many of those locked up continue to be released only to offend again within months. Unless this is reversed, we face ever-growing bills for more prisons to house ever-more inmates. We seem to be moving back towards the idea that punishment is enough, when we should be re-examining what our prisons do, and how we can make them redundant.
There was a time when the reform agenda embraced a simple idea – that he who opened a school, closed a prison. So yes, Mr Grayling needs to admit the political failures that lie behind our over-crowded and unsafe jails, but we also need to begin a new debate on the efficacy of imprisonment.
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