The riots show us that our prison system must change before it’s too late

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.


  1. Good piece and completely agree, v interesting points! Though think the comparison between US and Norway must also be influenced by wider social welfare structures there too – many people reverting to criminal behaviour because of financial need and not having the tools or understanding to do anything other than follow old patterns in times of hardship. Which highlights for me the fact that rehabilitation needs not only recognition of prisoners as human beings but also be recognition that many of them are working with inherent disadvantage and might need considerable work to remedy that. From reports over last few weeks and as this article shows, it seems like we’re not managing either part of that right now, to all of our cost. Not managing the second part is irrational and promotes this viscious circle of massive reoffence rates. Not managing even the first part starts to undo the work of the prison reform of the late 1700s. Begs the question: why do we let this one area of (expensive) social governance fail to really progress over the decades?

    ‘We must decide what kind of society we want and create a prison system that reflects that’ – sounds like an awfully big question. And an unavoidably important one.


    1. Completely agree. There’s definitely issues with getting ex prisoners into work, gettting them somewhere to live that won’t allow them to fall into the same circles that got them to prison, ensuring they have enough so that they don’t see crime as the only answer, etc. that need to be sorted out but it’s politically difficult because people will see it as giving prisoners something when they don’t have it themselves. As you say, a more welfarist approach, like Norway has, would probably ensure that prisoners have more when they leave prison so don’t need to revert to crime, but once again politically difficult as it goes into what kind of society we want, and what we seem to want at the moment is less state and less welfare, which will probably mean more crime.


  2. J L Hunt · · Reply

    You’ve made a very strong argument…it’s something that definitely should be addressed


    1. Thanks for the comment 🙂


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