For the past four months, two-thirds of Britain’s prisoners have been in quasi-solitary confinement, locked in cells for at least 23 hours a day. According to the Prison Reform Trust, evidence indicates this does permanent mental health damage. At this point, prison becomes a life sentence. On any basis, it is barbaric.
Britain’s prison record is currently, like its public health record, among the worst of any country in Europe. It is vulnerable to the same disease: politics. If the much-vaunted radicalism of Boris Johnson’s aide Dominic Cummings is to mean anything, he should turn from easy targets, such as civil servants and local democracy, and tackle something hard, like prisons.
British addiction to incarceration has been raging for decades. Were it not for coronavirus, the UK prison population would now be approaching 100,000. In 1939 it was little more than 15,000. It topped 40,000 under Thatcher and soared to 80,000 under Tony Blair. This reflects not rising crime, but a political craving to appear tough on crime, for the wider criminalisation of social misbehaviour and for ever longer sentences.
I do not expect QCs to be radical on punishment. It brings them good money at the taxpayer’s expense. But Chris Daw QC, after a career at the bar, is clearly in despair. “Almost everything we think about crime and punishment is wrong,” he writes in his new book, Justice on Trial, and “a devastating waste of money”. I was an occasional prison visitor and, like me, Daw cannot see the point of prison. Except for dangerously violent individuals, imprisonment is a medieval hangover, a world of clanging gates, yelling guards and filthy cells, the sole purpose being to “teach ’em a lesson”. It is one they seldom learn.
Much of Daw’s book is taken up with what is anathema to Whitehall policymakers: observing experience abroad. He tells of a tough woman governor of a North Dakota prison on a visit to Norway who broke down in tears seeing prisoners with private rooms chatting with staff, rather than being packed into cages, as at her institution. On returning to the US, she ordered her officers to converse with inmates twice a day and “implement our humanity”. Recidivism in Norway is 20% after two years, against almost 50% in England and Wales after one year. In Scandinavia and the Netherlands, prisons are simply going out of use.
Daw would follow many of those sentenced in his courts to see what became of them. He was appalled. Why imprison otherwise law-abiding drug users, when prisons are seething with drug addiction and even states across the US are now decriminalising marijuana? As for Britain’s age of criminal responsibility at 10, this compares with 13 in France, 15 in Sweden and 18 in Luxembourg. It is utterly primitive and indicative of how, Daw suspects, we routinely breach the 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child.
To add to the horror, British young offender institutions (YOI) are some of the worst prisons in the land, with a suicide almost once a month on average. To Daw they are a form of state slavery, “closely replicating the feral violence of custodial institutions in the Victorian age”. At Feltham YOI, an academy for a life of crime, teenagers can find themselves locked up for 23 hours a day.
Daw is not naive. But fewer than 100 prisoners are so dangerous as to be on “whole life” sentences, while he reckons a further 10,000 require incarceration to maintain public safety. They do need something like a prison. For the rest, Daw wants them kept in their homes and in the community, monitored by the plethora of electronic devices now available to the police and probation services. Some will reoffend, but they are more likely to do that on release from prison.
A massive reduction in the prison estate on a Dutch or Scandinavian scale would liberate resources for parole and what at least one-third of convicts need, which is mental healthcare. There is no evidence this would lead to a rise in crime: rather the reverse. To be sent to prison at all, when what often follows is family breakdown and unemployability, is already a sentence to a life of crime. The greatest danger to the public comes from imprisonment without rehabilitation on release – the British way.
One question Daw does not answer is: why? In many respects, Britain is a liberal north European country, its social mores tolerant and its welfare generous, compared with most places. Yet as Rutger Bregman points out in his new ode to social wellness, Humankind, its penal tradition is vicious. Norway’s prime minister responded to the horrific massacre of 2011 with a calming call for “more democracy, more openness, and more humanity”. It is unimaginable that a British politician would dare make such a plea. They would demand a thousand more police and extra prisons.
This is a matter of pragmatism, not ideology. Daw is not leftwing. Britain is suffering a glaring disconnect between what penology and foreign experience show should be done, and a thuggish politics intent on charging towards America. Ministers murmur, “the Daily Mail would slay us … The risk is too great … what about the victims?” Anything but the sensible thing. In Britain there is mileage in idiocy if you call it tough on crime.
Lockdown seems to have triggered a deep psychological response in British officialdom. The opportunity for petty restrictions, for inexplicable – at least unexplained – curbs on personal freedom, have brought out Whitehall’s inner autocrat. The last people who might expect sympathy are prisoners. But is Cummings a man or a mouse? British prisons are not just scandalous, they are dumb. Most of them should go.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist