Prison reform is slow, but could the will to change be growing?


Fake German heiress Anna Delvey was released from prison last week. She spent 19 months at Rikers Island awaiting trial, and then another 21 months at Albion Correctional Facility after she was convicted of scamming hotels, restaurants and banks out of more than $200,000. Features in Vanity Fair and New York magazine led to that sticky sort of fame, sickly and delicious to so many of us, so of course people were clamouring to interview her when she came out. Prison, she told the press, two days after her release, “It’s just pointless. It’s a huge waste of time… I feel like it’s insane. To take people, to lock them up, take everything away from them, and just to expect them to reform.” She continued: “They have this universal solution for everyone and that should not be the case.” And the thing is, even if you can only hear this as a whinge, the bored complaints of a bratty grifter, spat through a mouth of gum, she’s right.

The pandemic, along with its horrors, has also offered an opportunity to reshape how we live. From the small, like the clothes we wear, to the large – a move away from offices, or the provision of hotel rooms for homeless people. There was even a moment for prisons. Last April, justice secretary Robert Buckland launched an early-release scheme to ease the pressure on prisons. But despite around 4,000 prisoners being eligible, by the time it “paused” in August, just 275 had been released. The moment passed. Now, one in eight prisoners in England and Wales has tested positive for Covid-19, and staff warn of a “mental health crisis” as prisoners are confined to their cells, with visits and education programmes restricted.

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Prisons, each an identity crisis in brick and steel, wobble in intention between deterrent and punishment, rehab facility and cage. It doesn’t really matter where they land – none work. Prison is not a deterrent: the UK’s prison population has risen by 69% in the past 30 years, yet there’s no link to levels of crime. It doesn’t rehabilitate either: almost half the people who leave prison reoffend within a year of release. For those serving sentences shorter than a year, it leaps to 65%. The Prison Reform Trust reports prisoners and staff are “less safe than they have been at any point since records began”; since 2012, sexual assaults in prison have quadrupled. Shall I continue? Why not? I have the fury and I have the ink.

The penal system perpetuates racial and economic oppression; more than a quarter of the adult prison population and nearly half of all children in custody are from a minority ethnic group. On release, adults are given £46 (a figure that’s stayed the same since 1995), with 16% of them ending up on the streets. Prison doesn’t work. Unless… no. Unless, it does. Unless the aim of prison is not really one of the polite ideas above. Unless the aim is to simply remove undesirable bodies from society, in which case yep, all going well. All good.

Getting rid of prisons once seemed like a radical and dangerous idea. It’s difficult, wrote abolitionist Angela Davis in 2003, “to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and families”. Prison had been so successfully embedded into society that it was hard to imagine life without it. But while social structures have barely changed, it appears the average human has; today fewer than one in 10 people believe having more people in prison is the most effective way to deal with crime.

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Perhaps this is because it costs the taxpayer £41,000 per year to keep a single prisoner behind bars. Or because prison separates 17,000 children from their mothers every year. Perhaps it comes from a realisation of the fluidity of what, or who, is decided to be dangerous – a sex worker, a woman who hasn’t paid her TV licence (this crime accounts for a third of all criminal prosecutions against women), the people who signed off on the Grenfell cladding, the ministers responsible for illegally detaining child refugees? In Everybody, Olivia Laing’s upcoming book about freedom, she reminds us that, “Any human body can be criminalised by the state, not because of a crime that’s been committed, but because that particular body has been designated criminal in its own right.” I read this chapter quite late at night by the light of my phone. “It’s hard to know how a shared freedom can be achieved while prisons exist in their present form, silos for bodies that were never dangerous in the first place.” I slept badly.

During this pandemic, the government had a real chance to reduce prison numbers, or even abolish women’s prisons altogether. They failed. But below stairs, our civilian minds are changing. Along with tireless activists, high-profile villains like Anna Delvey (whose glamorous crimes come soon to Netflix) are contributing to a mainstreaming of the idea that prison not only damages those locked up, but also erodes the humanity of those of us walking free.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman





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