July 13 2024
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A Mass Imprisonment Society – Can we not do better?

A Mass Imprisonment Society – Can we not do better?

The late Labour Minister Tony Benn once predicted that we were advancing towards a society where half the population is in prison and the other half are in the police force.

Public policy is dominated by an obsession with imprisonment – once seen as a last resort, now it seems the only resort our governments can think of.

England, Wales and Scotland have by far the highest rates of imprisonment in Western Europe (more than twice the rate of imprisonment of Germany for example).  England and Wales have almost half (48%) of the people serving life sentences across the 53 Council of Europe jurisdictions (excluding the outlier of Turkey) (Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefings 2024).

Is our society really so much more criminogenic and lawless to justify such a contrast?  If so, what has gone so wrong with our society and why are we so devoid of ideas that might make things better rather than worse?

Justice Minister Alex Chalk recently proudly announced that the government was embarking on the biggest prison expansion since the time of Disraeli (the 1870s).  So attractive is this Dickensian scenario that, with a general election looming, the Labour party is committed to the same policy of creating around 20,000 addition prison places.  Politicians in the UK equate suggesting that we should reduce the prison population with political suicide but are the British public really so vindictive than their counterparts in Western Europe or could they cope with something more progressive that might even actually work occasionally?

Like the USA we have become a mass imprisonment society, and of course with this comes all the horrors of closed institutions amplified by overcrowding and excessive confinement.

Notwithstanding the British Government’s recent cavalier attitude to international law and human right standards, it is worth noting that conditions for a large proportion of prisoners in the UK meet and exceed the United Nations definition of torture: –

The United Nations Minimum Standards for Prisoners “The Mandela Rules” identify prolonged solitary confinement as an example of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (Rule 43, 1).  Rule 44 states that “solitary confinement shall refer to the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact. Prolonged solitary confinement shall refer to solitary confinement for a time period in excess of 15 consecutive days”.

Cellular confinement in UK prisons goes way beyond these limits – it goes on for years, albeit that in many cases confinement is not solitary but shared by two or more people in a space considered adequate for one in the Victorian era that Mr Chalk so enthusiastically evokes.  OK, technically, not solitary, but sharing that space with your favourite person in the world would be tough, sharing it with a person not of your choice does not bear thinking about.  Approximately 40,000 of the 87,000-prison population live in conditions defined as torture (the highest rate being 58% on male local prisons – HM Inspectorate of Prisons Annual Report 2023).

The physical effects of this kind of confinement (lack of exercise, lack of fresh air, health risks through infestations and living, eating and sleeping in what amounts to little more than a toilet cubicle) are obvious but the psychological effects are virtually unimaginable.  It is hard to believe that anyone can emerge from years of such treatment without having established a profound hatred of society, a desire for revenge and/or a severe mental health problem.  It was reported in the Guardian (5th September 2023) that Germany had refused to extradite a man accused of drug trafficking because of the inhumane conditions in UK prisons (Diane Taylor, Guardian, http://tinyurl.com/mr292mxz.)

While all prisoners are liable to these extremes, it is the elderly[1], those with physical illnesses or disabilities and mental health problems[2] that are most likely to be confined in this inhumane way due to their inability to cope and mobilise in an unsuitable and unhealthy environment.  As one prisoner described to me, “There are so many old men with cancer on this wing – they’re running a death camp here”.

The government’s answer to crime is to make sentences longer and longer so that damaged people are kept out of society and left to rot in society’s dustbins.  Longer sentences seem to be the answer to a whole host of social problems.  One consequence of this is that the UK’s disproportionate level of life sentences compared to the rest of Western Europe is significantly under-stated.  The biggest growing group in UK prisons are the over 60s and because most of the increase in this group involves historical sex offences (many based on unverifiable accusations dating back many years or even decades) they often involve elderly prisoners serving long sentences which to all intents and purposes are death sentences.

A Warning – you may find the following examples upsetting – if not, that is even more worrying: –

Our innocence project has had five clients die in prison in recent years. We have had direct of experience of how hard it is to get compassionate release even when a prisoner is clearly in the last days of life.  One of our clients recently convicted (wrongly in my view) at the age of 80, is now suffering with dementia and serving a sentence which gives precious little hope of ever being released. Furthermore, he may well die unaware of where he is or why he is there.   Can we really justify such mindless cruelty; is this really in the public interest to disgrace our common humanity in this fashion?

Recent horror stories we have heard from prisoners include: –

“I am in a very small double cell and can’t move in here.  It’s so bad that only one person can get dressed or undressed at a time.  Even making a brew or getting a wash is a huge task……The hot weather makes these cells unbearable.  Too hot and not enough air gets in.   The 23-hour lock up is inhumane with so little room to move and the heating on all day”

“For many prisoners this lockdown is mentally crippling them.  Rather like going insane in instalments.  It is going to be a massive tragedy, and no one wants to recognise it.”

The following was described by several members of a support group who had observed and/or heard from their relatives about this situation:

Mr X has severe dementia and every day he believes he has a taxi arriving to take him home to his wife.  Consequently, he refuses to return to his cell until the staff tell him to get his coat because his taxi has arrived.  He then enters the cell to get his coat upon which the door is slammed.  He then spends many hours, including during the night, banging the door trying to get out to reach his taxi.

The letter below was written by a prisoner Mr K. Isham who had the decency and courage to write this letter to the Inside Time prison magazine in October 2017.   It provides a harrowing example of neglect: –

Too Old for Prison

“I have had the opportunity to see first-hand what an unmitigated shambles the prison estate is in – assaults, rampant drug taking and self-harm, the list is long.  But the one thing that grates on me that I really find truly disgusting, is the way elderly prisoners are treated in prison – mainly thanks to society’s almost rabid desire to punish historical sex offenders.  More and more people are being sent to prison who should be in care homes.

Picture this, a man confined to his bed, elderly, suffering with dementia, screaming out in agony from chronic bedsores, while he lies in his soiled clothes in his urine-soaked bed. 

If you read that in a newspaper, if that poor man was in a care home, there would be angry headlines, letters to the authorities and condemnation from society.  But if that man is a convicted criminal and he’s in prison people just shrug and say “so what?”

Does this man not deserve the level of care befitting his age and medical conditions?  Just because he’s an offender does that make him less of a human being?  Due to the witch hunt around historical sex offences, nearly half of the prison population are aged 50+.  I understand the need to punish offenders, but is prison the best way?  You certainly cannot rehabilitate someone who is unable to remember what happened yesterday let alone a crime committed decades ago.

This is not “punishment”. It is nothing but torture, nothing less, and in a supposedly civilised country in the 21st century.  Keeping these people in prison should turn the stomach of anyone with a shred of humanity and morality.

There are secure care homes where they could be cared for properly.  Or is it cheaper to stick them in prison as the government don’t have to pay pensions and disability allowance?  What a disgrace.”

The Prison Service has been known to describe its activities as being humane and having a decency agenda.  In today’s crisis, such claims are a justice delusion if ever there was one.

In fairness there are pockets of good practice and decency, but these do not excuse the widespread disgraceful conditions.  I haven’t even mentioned the horrors of special control units (prisons within prisons) or segregation units.

It’s easy to criticise of course but what can be done? Well, quite a bit in fact.  Instead of committing to the enormous cost of creating 20,000 more prison places: –

  • Use the money to create alternative treatment centres (secure if necessary but humane) for drug addition, for treating people with unacceptable and uncontrollable sexual desires, for treating people who commit offences linked to mental health and learning disabilities.
  • Avoid the use of imprisonment wherever possible with community alternatives and then perhaps we would have the space and capacity to create smaller units for offenders based on rehabilitation, psychological support and vocational training.
  • Base policy on research on prisons – if anything works it is small local units that enhance local and family contact, not massive USA-style prison colonies (far from family and community contacts) like the ones currently being developed.

Of course, there are some very dangerous people and some people who are so anti-social and/or damaged that society must be protected.   It would be naïve to think that everyone can be rehabilitated or restored to sanity.  In the current system these people are often thrown together with defenceless and vulnerable people who live in constant fear and danger as a result.

Many people might not care what happens to prisoners, or perhaps they would just rather not think about it, but they could at least have a thought for the prison service and its staff – they, and the environment they work in, are not equipped to deal with physical illness, disability, mental illness, learning disabilities, dementia and every other social problem we throw into the bin.

The current approach, with the combination of excessively long sentences, excessive confinement and appalling, overcrowded conditions, has created a world devoid of everything worth living for.  For many, hope of a future no longer exists and the notion of rehabilitation is meaningless.  What does this state of despair do to prisoners and staff, what does it say about us and our society that we live with these institutions of cruelty and despair proliferating in our towns and countryside?  In an advanced “civilised” society can’t we think of anything better?

I once asked one of our clients – a young man with learning disabilities, later cleared of an absurdly unjust conviction – what his experience of prison was like.   He gave me a very clear and succinct answer. “It was Hell”.

[1] Around one in six (17%) of the prison population are aged 50 or over—13,985 people. Of these 3,682 are in their 60s and a further 1,775 people are 70 or older. 368 people in prison were aged 80 or over as of 30th September 2022 (Prison Reform Trust 2023).

[2] More than three in four women (76%) reported that they had a mental health problem compared with around half of men (51%).  25% of women and 15 % of men had active psychosis (Prison Reform Trust 2023).



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