What do we want from our prison system? The two recent prison riots in Kent and Birmingham have brought this question to the fore again. These riots are the culmination of a deteriorating prison service, with massive staff shortages since G4S took over, overcrowding and eating next to “unscreened” toilets. A staff member at wormwood scrubs said that they “wouldn’t keep a dog in there”.
But who really cares, they’re prisoners, they’ve lost their right to a good standard of living, they should of thought about that before they committed the crime, etc. That could well be true – for the avoidance of doubt, it isn’t – but lets assume these are all hard bastards who deserve it. What are we doing with them? Leaving them to rot at her majesty’s pleasure? At £40,000 pounds a year, that’s an expensive way to hang someone out to dry.
England and Wales has a prison population of about 146 per 100,000 people, which comes to about 86,000 people. That’s roughly £3.44 billion spent a year on keeping people locked up in shit conditions. There should be a clear strategy as to how we spend such a large amount of money, and it needs to consider what we are really trying to do with the prisoners. The five usual goals of prison are: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, restoration and rehabilitation. I would argue that the one we should focus on is rehabilitation.
If someone is fully rehabilitated they will not commit any more crimes, they will not need to be punished, deterred or incapacitated, and the prison population will decline. Of course, not everyone can be rehabilitated and some will forever remain a threat to other people, but if we focus on rehabilitation, rather than retribution, for instance, we increase the chances of returning citizens, rather than criminals, to the world, once they finish their sentences.
The U.S. has a focus on punishment, and its results are not good. 707 out of 100,000 people are incarcerated, it has quite a high crime rate and a recidivism rate of 76.6% (ours is about 26%). The U.S. is the land of law and order, of being tough on crime. It doesn’t let some criminals vote when they have completed their sentence and has a three strikes and our out system in some states. This strategy clearly doesn’t work if your aim is to reduce crime.
Imprisonment is a character forming system. If you treat the imprisoned person as a criminal by punishing them through the conditions they live in whilst in prison, by removing their right to vote, by giving up on them if they commit three crimes, you say to this person that they are a criminal. Not a citizen, just a criminal. This is all that they can achieve, and this is all they strive to be. If you do this to a large number of people, you create a criminal class, a whole group of people defined by criminality, a group of people who, as criminals, cannot be rehabilitated and continue committing crimes. This is why the U.S. has such a large prison population and recidivism rate.
Compare this with the Norwegian system. It’s incarceration rate is 75 out of 100,000 people, it has quite a low crime rate, and its recidivism rate is 20%. Their prisons have no bars, they form friendly relationships with the guards, they cook their own food and prisoners are able to walk between different parts of the prison when they like. It is a strategy called “restorative justice” and it creates results because it treats prisoners as human beings, as citizens, rather than criminals. This is why the maximum sentence is 21 years (subject to no longer being deemed a threat to people). The point of prison in Norway is to produce members of society, not to punish criminals. This strategy has led to its low prison numbers and its low recidivism rate.
The question about what we want from our prison system is really a question of what we want for our society. To have a society with low crime rates, one that is both safer and more inclusive, we need to ensure our prison system is set up to produce these results. It is easy to say that you want to be tough on crime, but tough sentences and bad conditions are counterproductive. If you want to be tough on crime, you have to be kind to prisoners. That will, in turn, lead to a reduction in crime, which should be the overall aim of society.
Although the UK has a pretty good recidivism rate and a middling prison population, recent events, highlighting poor prison conditions have shown that we are at a tipping point. We must decide what kind of society we want and create a prison system that reflects that. At a time when private companies are being given the keys to the prisons – meaning that there is now a financial interest in having a high incarceration rate – this question of what to do with our prison system is more poignant than ever.