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‘We Cannot Build Our Way Out of the Prisons’ Crisis’

12th November 2008

As a one-off, the trustees decided that the 2008 Longford Lecture should take the form of a debate, addressing widespread public concern about the state of the prison system and in particular government plans to build new large ‘Titan’ prisons. The title was ‘We Cannot Build Our Way Out Of The Prisons’ Crisis’ and over 500 people gathered in Church House, Westminster, on Wednesday November 12 to take part in the debate. The event was introduced by Roger Alton, editor of the Independent, sponsors of the Longford Lecture, and it was chaired by the broadcaster, Jon Snow.


The first speaker was Baroness Helena Kennedy QC. ‘There is no way,’ she began, ‘you can build your way out of a prisons’ crisis. It is a shame on any society that you have as many people in prison as we do. Since 1992, we have doubled the number of people we have in prison up to 82,000. We are the prison capital of western Europe. We don’t compare yet with the United States but I don’t think that is something we should be aiming for. And per capita, we now outstrip Colonel Gadafy’s Libya which should be a source of shame.’

How, she asked, did we get here? ‘We have seen the politicisation of the issue of law and order,’ she said. ‘A Dutch auction has taken place between the political parties as to which is toughest, starting with Michael Howard’s claim [while Home Secretary until 1997] that “prison works”.’ Jack Straw, the incoming Labour Home Secretary, promised, she said, to make prison work via new programmes to tackle the sort of drug problems and abusive backgrounds found disproportionately amongst offenders.

‘It sounded heartening,’ Baroness Kennedy continued, ‘but the reality is much less heartening. When you have numbers of the sort we have in our prisons, any real decent work cannot be done around rehabilitation and education. Anyone who tells you it can is living in a fantasy world’. She quoted Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, that ‘prisons are now being used to do the work of social services’ departments’.

In the past Labour had struggled, Baroness Kennedy went on, to shake off its traditional image as ‘soft on crime’. New Labour may, she added, have successfully ditched the idea in the past decade that it was soft on war and hopeless with the economy, but it had also showed ‘we can be as tough on crime as anyone else’.

She pointed to the habit of ministers of blaming prison numbers on the sentencing policy of the courts. ‘If you set up a tone in public discourse about punishment, and make a satanic pact with tabloid press, what you get is pressure on courts to comply with that’. Public opinion, when presented with the nuances of the argument, was, she believed, more tolerant than government or tabloids appeared to believe.

She felt that the question of drug addiction and its impact on prison numbers needed urgent thought – ‘how drugs are so much part and parcel of cases before the courts’.She quoted statistics from 2003-4 to show that 79 per cent of men admitted to HMP Pentonville on remand had taken cocaine in the 48 hours before entering. ‘When judges are faced with sentencing someone whose offence is linked with drugs, it is easy to be persuaded to send them to prison because there are rehabilitation programmes there, but the reality is that such programmes are far more sparse than judges are told. What we need much more of is properly-funded community drugs work.’

The government’s proposals for three ‘Titan’ prisons, holding 2500 inmates each, ‘go against all experience that warehousing of prisoners is the least successful way of incarcerating them’. Research from the US, where they have such prisons, she said, has shown that ‘in terms of rehabilitation small is best, with prisoners kept as close as possible to home and therefore maintain family connections.’

Jon Snow then called Sir Ian Blair in his first public appearance since announcing his resignation as Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

‘On a moral principle’, Sir Ian began, we should not move to building more and bigger prisons. On a practical point, he questioned whether it could be done successfully. ‘But I think we need to agree what is the problem. For me the problem is that there is a core of people for whom there is no other place but prison because of their violent criminal behaviour, but then why are there so many other people in prison who do not fit this description?’

‘The criminal justice system is,’ he went on, ‘a system and therefore its component parts have an impact on each other.’  As an example, he quoted the fact that a more effective police service will arrest more people. The Metropolitan Police had arrested 30,000 more people last year than 4 years ago and crime is falling. That success will have an implication in terms of what size of prison we need.

But the question of why so many people are now in prison is a far wider debate than penal policy, he said. He likened society to a fast-flowing river full of people, some of whom are struggling in water. There is, he said, a choice for the police, as there is for society. ‘Do we go into the river and pull them out or go upstream to find out who is throwing them in?’ Evidence showed, he continued, that prisoners often have poor educational backgrounds, come from dysfunctional families, and suffer the absence of role models. ‘This is where there is actual work to be done.’

He took the example of knife crime. ‘There has been lots of enforcement but we can’t arrest our way out of this. We have to stop young people believing that they need to carry a knife for their own protection and that requires them to be influenced by wider united social policies. Prisons’ focus is only downstream.’

He focussed on the role of public opinion. ‘There is an element in the media and among political comment that believes we are being namby-pamby if we do not lock offenders up. But we can¹t lock everybody up. Too many people don¹t believe the criminal justice system is working.’ The community, Sir Ian argued, needs more information on the results of the criminal justice system. ‘It doesn’t believe community sentences work because it doesn’t see them happening. We may need to move to what for many is unpalatable that community punishments are visible, people in uniform in the streets doing jobs and people seeing them and thinking that doesn’t look comfortable’.

The absence of information coming out of the courts on sentences needed tackling, he went on, especially the youth courts. ‘People read about lots of crimes in the newspapers but then have no knowledge of the resulting sentences except in the most extreme cases which get reported, so they believe offenders walk away’.

He made a particular plea that the criminal justice system work harder to prevent abuse by defendants of bail. ‘What drives my officers mad is the number of people who offend while on bail and receive no punishment for it. My officers have lost count of the number of cases that do not proceed in youth courts because parents of children who have been victims will not let them give evidence after offenders on bail have threatened them.’

Jon Snow then called Jason Warr, an ex-prisoner, supported by the Longford Scholarships’ scheme while studying at the London School of Economics, now doing a PhD in criminology at Cambridge. The crisis in prison, Mr Warr said, ‘cannot be solved by the expansion of the penal estate and the building of further and bigger prisons. Fundamentally, this is because the causes of the prison crisis, and therefore the seeds of its resolution, lie in much wider issues than simply the supply and demand of prison cells’.

Mr Warr described a shift that has taken place within western societies in the last 20 years, both politically and socially, in regard of matters of criminal justice. ‘This shift is one where the momentum is away from criminal justice policy and practice largely dominated by welfarist ideals to one dominated by a more punitive discourse and ideology’. This shift, he continued, ‘can be character ised by a number of factors: the decline of rehabilitative ideal (rehabilitation as a primary goal); the re-emergence of “just desert”/retributive led punitiveness (harsher penalties and stricter, government directed sentencing structures); the advent of criminal justice policy dictated not by jurisprudential reasoning but by popular and media led emotion; the co-opting and centralizing of victim issues in order to promote a punitive agenda (victim impact statements at the point of sentencing and parole); and the obsession with public protection and the reinvention of the prison, especially the notion that “prison works”.’

The last 10 years, he said, ‘have seen the introduction of around 3000 new criminal offences. ‘When I was first incarcerated, prison was seen as one punishment amongst a range of valid punishments in the arsenal of the criminal justice system. Now it is the case that imprisonment is perceived, and indeed, promoted as the only legitimate form of punishment. Any other form of suggested punishment, such as community, or restorative, based penalties or economically focused sanctions, are met with derision and their efficacy is questioned.’

‘If there is,’ he concluded, ‘to be some resolution to the prison crisis then there needs to be open, and reasoned, discourse, followed by action, but not on the building of further and bigger prisons. For that path will lead to a form of Milton’s Abaddon, a bottomless pit housed not with the damned but by the incarcerated. Instead the focus of that discourse needs to be on the wider, societal, factors; for if it is not then the crisis that we are faced with can only, and will only, deepen.’

Finally Jon Snow called Phil Wheatley, director-general of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). ‘The rise in the prison population,’ Mr Wheatley said, ‘is one of the longest trends in government’. He tracked rising figures back to 1946. ‘Our success in reducing reoffending is substantial,’ he went on. ‘For those doing long sentences of four years and over, reoffending rates have been reduced by over a quarter against our predictions,’ he said. With shorter sentences, he went on, ‘the most we can say is that we make not a lot of difference’.

Community orders, he added, have better outcomes than short-term sentences.’Two weeks locked up in cell, watching TV and talking to your cellmate may not be fun but it is nowhere near as intrusive as a proper community punishment and being tagged so you can¹t go out of an evening.’

The cost of incarceration, he said, had to be weighed against the cost of community sentences.’Prisons are expensive – £100,000 to build a cell and £40,000 a year to run it.’

Decisions on the size and use of prison estate are, Mr Wheatley said, matters for politicians, though he noted the impact of the media on sentencing. ‘We saw a rise in use of imprisonment in post-Bulger Britain that was not related to changes in the law.’ The use of imprisonment by courts had, he said, remained roughly stable for the past eight years. It was the sentencing climate that changed immediately after that killing.

‘Something quite profound is happening in society across a whole range of issues. We are becoming much less tolerant of risk. So our children do not play outside supervised as I did. We have more health and safety regulations. When we climb on a bike we put a helmet on. Our whole approach to risk is now that we expect to be protected and that has become a fact of life for politicians and judges in the area of sentencing.’

He summed up by calling, as a democrat, for more rational debate and informed discussion on the costs and benefits of penal policy. ‘These are choices politicians are taking on our behalf, often a result of knee jerk reactions to the latest media frenzy.’