The reform of prisons has been my life’s work, but they are still utterly broken
Prisons are fundamentally unjust, but a small, ethical and compassionate system would transform lives
- Frances Crook is the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform
Nobody really cares about prisons. They are so far removed from the experience of most people and they are, apparently, full of horrid people. Occasionally, the media will run stories about rat-infested cells or suicide rates, but because so few people have anything to do with prisons, the stories soon fade and life for those on the outside continues as normal.
But prisons matter. It matters who goes into them. It matters what happens inside them. And it matters how much they cost. Although prisons too often function like black holes into which society banishes those it deems problematic, the state of our prisons tells a story about all of us. Prisons reflect society back to itself: they embody the ways we have failed, the people we have failed, and the policies that have failed, all at immense human – and economic – cost.
As chief executive of the prison reform charity the Howard League for the past 35 years, reforming prisons has become my life’s mission. In October, I will leave my work with one sad but inescapable conclusion: prisons are the last unreformed public service, stuck in the same cycle of misery and futility as when I arrived.
If a time traveller from 100 years ago walked into a prison today – whether one of the inner-city Victorian prisons or the new-builds where the majority of men are held – the similarities would trump the differences. They would recognise the smells and the sounds, the lack of activity and probably some of the staff. It is not only the buildings that have stayed the same – it is the whole ethos of the institution.
Prison is an unhealthy place. Most prisoners have come from poverty, addiction and social deprivation cemented by decades of failed social policy. Many arrive with long-term health problems, and in prison their health deteriorates further. While life expectancy and the quality of life for much of the country has advanced significantly in the past three decades, prisoners are considered “old” at 50. In the 12 months to June 2021, 396 people died in prison custody – some from Covid, some from suicide, many from “natural causes” that few of us on the outside would consider natural in middle age.
Even before prisons were locked down during the pandemic, it was normal for men – who make up 95% of the prison population – to spend almost all day in their cells. Wing-cleaning or an education class might occupy a few hours on a weekday. A shower every few days might offer brief respite. Men spend the day, and sleep, in ill-fitting, saggy prison uniforms, unwashed for days on end, waiting to be released.
Mealtimes provide structure, but not sustenance. Breakfast is a pack of white bread, a small bag of cereal and a small carton of milk, provided at tea-time the day before. (Inevitably, it is consumed that night.) They wake hungry, without food until lunch at about 11am – usually a small, soggy baguette, a packet of crisps and an apple, if they’re lucky. One hot meal comes with stodge and vegetables cooked beyond the point of identification at about 5pm.
The sheer monotony of life inside does nothing for the mental health challenges many prisoners face. Addictions worsen, with drugs readily available across the nation’s prison estate. Lockdown may have ended what little human contact prisoners had with the outside world. It did nothing to stem the flow of narcotics.
On release, many face homelessness and joblessness and may well have lost any family contact they had before incarceration. The people we step over in the street, for whom we sometimes buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee, are often people recently released from prisons. It is hardly surprising that about half of those released are reconvicted of a further offence and end up back inside. It is a merry-go-round but without cheer.
Minister after minister has done nothing to address the central question haunting our prison system: what is it all for? Each new secretary of state arrives with a new idea – improving a handful of prisons, building a few new ones, or getting people on to sex offender courses – and millions are duly splurged on the latest fad. But it does not face up to the problem that is the prison system as a whole.
At the heart of prisons is the fact that they are fundamentally unjust. They embed and compound social, economic and health inequalities. They disproportionately suck in men from poor, Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. They do nothing to help people out of crime. We only have to look at the internal punishment system to see that unfairness is the name of the game, with Black people significantly more likely to be physically restrained and punished than their white counterparts.
The whole system needs radical overhaul, starting with a swingeing reduction in the number of people we imprison. Custody is the most drastic and severe response the state has at its disposal and should only be used in exceptional and rare instances – either for the most egregious crimes, or when someone poses a serious and continuing threat to public safety.
Abiding by that principle would virtually empty our prisons of women and children, and drastically reduce the number of men behind bars. Most women are either on remand or serving a short sentence. Many are survivors of domestic abuse. Vanishingly few have committed violent crimes that warrant incarceration; fewer still could be reasonably considered to pose an ongoing threat to society. They, along with the 500 children who are currently incarcerated, should be managed in the community by specialist local authority-run services that provide the support, rehabilitation and education that will save them from further imprisonment. Thousands of men would benefit from similar support, whether that’s community addiction services, decent housing or mental health facilities.
The number of people in prison in England and Wales today sits at 78,600. That number could and should plummet – and swiftly. Margaret Thatcher – no softie on criminal justice – managed with less than half that number of prisoners. The Netherlands has drastically cut its prison population and is closing its prisons. A shrunken estate could be transformed so that prisons become places of purpose where people receive holistic support, quality care, meaningful skills and education, in an environment that is as similar to the society they will eventually re-enter as possible.
Over the past 35 years, I hope that I have contributed to making things just a bit better. I am most proud of the work we have done with police forces to reduce the arrests of young people, saving hundreds of thousands of children from experiencing the trauma and lifelong damage of being arrested. But the state of our prison system, the leviathan that continues to devour lives and resources and contaminates political discourse, remains my most bitter regret. A small, ethical and compassionate prison system would save the taxpayer a fortune, change lives and transform incarceration for good. It does not have to be like this.
- An article in The Guardian – Tuesday 10 August 2021