There is no doubt that British prisons are in trouble.
There are issues with rehabilitation services – a large number of tragic prison suicides – high rates of re-offending – and issues stemming from a partially privatised prison services. Recent months have seen both a strike from prison guards and a serious riot at a prison in Birmingham. Prisoners themselves have often raised legal challenges to their sentences or incarceration using human rights legislation, causing further headaches for Her Majesty’s Prison Service (HMPS).
Prisons have a history of being an issue, both for society, the criminal justice system, and Government. The prison service also has a habit of being a poisoned chalice (and often the downfall of) Home Office and Ministry of Justice Ministers. Earnest statements have been made on the system – such as “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” Politicians, Civil Servants, think tanks and “experts” have all had ideas as to the causes of issues in prisons, and solutions.
From those, proposals and plans for reform have been many and varied. They have ranged from the complex, such as heated talks with the Prison Officers Association (POA – the main prison officers trade union) – to the simplistic and long term, such as incentives and extra efforts to recruit ex- military personnel into the prison service. But still the troubles remain in Britain’s overcrowded prisons.
Justice Secretary Liz Truss MP has been the latest politician to address the issue of prisons. In a recent appearance at the Centre for Social Justice, she turned away from the idea of making cuts in the record 85,000 prison population, stating that such cuts would ultimately put the public at greater risk.
There have been suggestions and calls for shorter sentences and less custodial sentences to be imposed. Ms Truss rejected those calls, stating that “reductions by cap or quota, or by sweeping sentence cuts are not a magic bullet, they are a dangerous attempt at a quick fix.” Her argument was that prison population has not grown because of more and lengthier sentences – as is commonly claimed – but a much tougher approach to crimes such as sexual offences, child abuse, drugs crimes and violent behaviour.
A further argument advanced by the Justice Secretary is that the police have become more effective at catching criminals, with improved techniques in forensics, ballistics, and similar, the technological revolution, and other modern advances in law enforcement. Of course, she makes no mention that the best method to prevent and tackle crime are police officers on the beat, able to fight crime, as opposed to endlessly filling out forms at a police station.
The criminal justice system has also become more effective, in processing suspects, bringing suspects to trial, and ensuring that legal proceedings are as smooth and swift as possible. Again, the Lord Chancellor makes little reference to legal aid cuts that have impacted on the ability of defendants to get adequate legal representation, and court closures which -together with an increasing number of cases brought to trial – have imposed often lengthy delays in actually prosecuting suspected offenders.
Especially following very high profile cases of child abuse in recent years, more and more are feeling confident about coming forward and making allegations of abuse. The same can be said of sexual related crimes. As a result, those jailed for sexual offences has increased by nearly 140% since 2000. The nature of the prison population has changed remarkably, with three out of five prisoners now in jail for sexual offences, violence, or drugs. Since 2000, the prison population rose to a maximum of 86,000 in 2012 – up from 40,000 in 1990.
Relying on those and other arguments, Ms Truss therefore rejected calls to reduce sentences. Quoting from her speech in February, she stated that “It is not the case there has been an upward drift in sentence length across the board. Increases in sentences have only been in particular areas … In fact the biggest driver for prison growth in the last twenty years has been the exposure, pursuit and punishment of sexual offences, domestic abuse and other crimes of violence … A more understanding and responsive attitude to how we treat victims of sex crimes has seen an increase in reporting and changing attitudes in society that have been reflected in a toughening-up of sentences.”
In a dig at Labour peer Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, she continued that it is “not that the sum of human wickedness has doubled – it’s that we have driven that wickedness out from the shadows and put it where it belongs, behind bars.”
Whilst agreeing that, at in excess of 80,000, the prison population is too large, and that there are many issues with the prison sector currently – Ms Truss, in rejecting one solution, did not set out another. At least, though, she has admitted that there is a problem, and has made steps – such as agreeing to meet with POA leaders during a recent strike.
A major cause of issues for HMPS is overcrowding. The Justice Secretary advances plausible arguments as to explain why those numbers rose that high, and continue to do so. Many still contend that lengthy sentences are the cause – or advance the theory of poor rehabilitation, which leads to re-offending. Another theory is that prison is the wrong sentence for some criminals, and the courts should sentence accordingly. In some cases, a heroin addict could benefit more from treatment for an addiction, than a mail sentence which would not tackle their addiction. In some cases, a violent criminal might need treatment for a mental condition, as opposed to a jail sentence.
And what of a solution? Old prisons need renovating – rehabilitation amd education services need to be improved. More money, personnel and resources are needed for both criminal justice and the prison sector. HMPS needed to tackle low morale, recruiting and retention of good Prison Officers. Prisons and guards outsourced to companies such as Serco and G4S (allegedly implicated in many a scandal) need to brought more under government oversight.
Whatever the answer – it is probably a combination of the above, and other social, legal and political factors. Whatever the solution – it probably involves a combination of the above.
Issues in the prison sector are anything but new – and are a thorny issue faced by successive Justice Secretaries. Ms Truss is but the latest to wade into the issue. It is to be hoped that her efforts will actually yield results in improving prison services.