It is 21 years since Michael Howard, the home secretary who ripped up the old Tory commitment to a liberal, humane penal policy, declared that prison works. In the years since, the prison population has swelled, and his mantra has become a public test of commitment to law and order for Labour as well as Conservative justice secretaries. The number of people locked up in England and Wales rose by nearly 4% every year between 1993 and 2010. After the riots in 2011, it reached a peak of more than 88,000. But incarceration is expensive and money is short. The Ministry of Justice budget, £9bn when the coalition took office, has , with more to come. The budget for offenders has borne a heavy burden, with predictable results. Meticulously described in official publications such as the annual reports of the and the , they contain brutal evidence of what austerity means for the security and wellbeing of both inmates and prison officers.
These are some of the numbers. The Howard League now estimates that there are 40% fewer officers in the frontline than in 2010. The Ministry of Justice disputes the figures, but at last week’s prison governors’ conference, members described a system with no slack in it. One talked of having to work shifts in prison kitchens to cover staff shortages. That means more and more inmates spending more and more of the day in their cells. Supervision is cut to the minimum. One consequence was cruelly illustrated by the Guardian’s research last week. are averaging six a month. One person in custody kills themselves every five days; one day last month, three prisoners died. “I didn’t expect them to love him, but I did think they would look after him,” said Lynda Davison, whose 21-year-old son, Steven, hanged himself in HMP Glen Parva in Leicestershire.
Last month, that prison was no longer a holiday camp. It never was. All the same, if this new regime genuinely fulfilled the purposes of cutting crime and reducing reoffending, then there might be a defence. But it does neither of those things.
The purported link between more prisoners and less crime is driving the move to larger, cheaper, and, for many prisoners’ families, more remote prisons. Yet True, recorded crime is at its lowest level since 1981, and the number of people in prison, at 83,000, only a little below its peak. But the standard academic analysis estimates that for every 1% fall in crime, the prison population needs to expand by 25%. If that’s right, then of the 45% fall between 1995 and 2010, during which time the prison population doubled, only about four percentage points can be attributed to locking people up.
That is not the only way. As Mr Grayling’s predecessor, Ken Clarke, pointed out in 2010, prison does not work. Half of all adult prisoners reoffend within a year, rising to more than 75% of under-18s. It is a cliche that far too many people are locked into a cycle of offending, prison and reoffending. Even that recycling the same people through the system needs tackling. Yet, despite last year’s tagging fiasco, when , outsourcing and “payment by results” will once again be at the heart of the reform. Later this week, despite , preferred bidders for the contracts will be announced.
Prison officers have now joined the prisons inspector and the ombudsman to warn that there is a real danger of violence and even rioting. But, disregarding government promises to protect those who disclose information in the public interest, and even dismissal, as we report. The justice secretary closely monitors journalistic visits to prisons. It is being hinted that the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, a notable critic of government policy in a role that has attracted some courageously frank individuals, . His latest report is out on Tuesday. It should be the signal to rethink penal policy.