Better Off Inside? The State of Britain’s Prisons

If the residents of British prisons could vote in elections, they probably wouldn’t at the moment choose Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He recently vetoed a proposed 38% increase in inmates’ pay  (from £4 to £5.50p per week) just one day before it was due to take effect. The rate hasn’t changed since the mid-1990’s, is a long way behind the National Minimum Wage of £5.52p per hour and doesn’t remotely cover the costs of phone calls to the outside world or buying items from the prison canteen. Twenty-nine other European countries (including Spain,  Portugal & Italy) allow their prisoners to vote either always or sometimes, though in France and Germany the judges can suspend this right as an additional punishment. In the USA, all but two (Maine and Vermont) of the 50 States impose a complete ban.

Here, the debate is more about overcrowding. The population of Britain’s 160 penal institutions is now over 85,000.  Critics of the UK judicial system consider this to be needlessly high . Each person put behind bars costs the taxpayer about £38,000 per year. If they are temporarily accommodated in a police or court cell (as now frequently happens), the expense to the country can be £1800 (including VAT) per night –  more than (according to The ‘Sunday Express’) a deluxe suite at London’s Ritz Hotel. The Government plans an additional 9,500 capacity by 2012 but  in the interim is  looking for more immediate solutions – such as even using ships moored along the coast. Jail occupancy in England & Wales is now up to 112.7%. In Spain (129.5%) and Italy (131.5%) it’s even worse.In the US, over 2.1 million people (one in 140 Americans) are ‘inside’ at any one time. In London’s main prisons (Holloway (women), Brixton, Wandsworth, Pentonville & Wormwood Scrubs,) the total is 4620.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote that ‘A society should be judged by how it treats its criminals’. In the opinion of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), their residents are now so comfortable in jail they don’t want to escape. It gives as an example a drugs & mobile phone dealer discovered regularly breaking into a Yorkshire prison using a ladder. No inmate was tempted to leave by the same route. This view ,however, is contradicted by reports of ‘endemic squalor’, rats and cockroaches at Pentonville and other Victorian era jails. The Government, meanwhile,
doesn’t appear quite sure what policy to adopt. It wants to show the electorate that it is ‘tough on crime’, but due to the space crisis has been discouraging judges from giving ‘custodial sentences’. It has also been releasing prisoners (over 18,600 since June 2007) before ‘completing their time’ to make room for new arrivals.  Official figures indicate that just 367 of these have committed new offences ,  somewhat dispproving the frequent assumption that ex-convicts can never ‘go straight’..

On the 6th May, Pete Doherty (lead singer of the ‘Babyshambles’ pop group) was let out of Wormwood Scrubs after serving only 29 days of his 14-week sentence, partly (say the media) so he could perform at the Glastonbury Festival from 27-29 June (when he was supposed to be still in prison). This decision upset some ‘hardline’ politicians. The food ‘inside’ is apparently better than it used to be. Porridge is still served, but less than before. Special diets cater for religious and vegetarian requirements. Many cells have video games and satellite TV. Though all this may seem an attractive alternative to high rents, expensive food and rush hour traffic, on balance life is probably still marginally better on the outside.

Filed under: Politics | Posted on May 1st, 2008 by Colin D Gordon

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