In 1910 the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, told the House of Commons:
“The first real principle which should guide anyone trying to establish a good system of prisons should be to prevent as many people as possible getting there at all. There is an injury to the individual, there is a loss to the State whenever a person is committed to prison for the first time, and every care, consistent with the maintenance of law and order, must be taken constantly to minimise the number of persons who are committed to gaol.”
Churchill was as good as his word. He did his best to reduce prison numbers and his immediate successors agreed with him. Prison numbers fell until 1915. They then remained roughly stable until the 1940s, since when, with the exception of a blip here and there, they have continued to rise.
Between 1900 and 2016 the general population has roughly doubled, whilst the prison population has increased approximately five fold.
The Conservative Party has lost sight of Churchill’s principle that an important object of Government should be “constantly to minimise the number of persons who are committed to gaol.” Instead, successive governments – have done the opposite, sometimes seeming to revel in the fact that they have sent the prison population soaring.
Labour governments became just as addicted to imprisonment as the Conservatives. We can now see the fruits of that consensus: not a reduced crime rate – that is something which we have seen across the Western world, sometimes correlating with increased imprisonment, sometimes not – but a rotten prison system which brings shame on a civilised nation.
Tuesday’s annual report from Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, lays bare the national picture which in truth has been obvious for anyone troubling to read the reports of individual prison inspections over the last 12 months. Our prisons are now in a disgusting state: filthy, aimless and soul-destroying. At Wormwood Scrubs for example:
“many prisoners spent almost all day, and ate their unappetising meals, doubled up in a dirty, damaged cell with an unscreened toilet… The prison had a significant rat problem; we saw them every day and night we visited the prison and a large rat’s nest was very obvious in the grounds.”
And they are not just disgusting; they are dangerous, and steadily becoming more so. The numbers of suicides – perhaps using a TV cable to construct a noose and a bunk bed as a serviceable, if less than fully humane gallows – has continued to rise, as have incidences of violence. As the report put it:
“Levels of violence have continued to rise at the vast majority of the adult male establishments we inspected – in one or two, this rise was extraordinary …. At the same time, in most of our surveys significantly more prisoners than previously told us that they felt unsafe – at Leeds, the percentage who said they felt unsafe at the time of the inspection had tripled, from 10% to 31%. This worrying and continuing upward trend in violence was reflected in our judgements. We were sufficiently concerned to make main recommendations about violence at 21 of the 35 adult male prisons inspected.”
The state of young offenders’ institutions was, if anything, even worse than adult prisons. Reports of violence by children on children, by children on staff and by staff on children have peppered the Inspector’s recent reports on individual establishments. As this week’s report put it:
“by February this year we had reached the conclusion that there was not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people.”
This is monstrous. I know a few of these young people sent to these places. They have been clients, or people that I have prosecuted. It is increasingly difficult to reconcile my conscience with participation in a system that treats human beings, typically young men with untreated mental health problems, as acceptable collateral damage in a “war on crime” which is very often pointless anyway. Once in custody these teenagers are at the mercy of the state. It is a gross failure by the state if it does not, as a bare minimum, protect them from violence or from killing themselves whilst in the grip of despair or mental illness. It is another failure when it simply keeps them – as far too many are – locked in cells for hour after wasted hour because there is no capacity to do anything else. Occasionally we have a minister – Michael Gove was one such – who seems at least to understand the nature of the problem, yet the minister then moves on and nothing happens.
Of course the immediate source of much of the problem is money. The budget for the Ministry of Justice was cut by over 34% between 2010 and 2015. There are still, amazingly, many dedicated prison officers trying their best to do a good job, but their numbers have been reduced with no corresponding fall in prisoner numbers. The government’s recent, and repeatedly re-announced plan to recruit a further 2,500 prison officers will do little to remedy the problem.
But lack of money is not the fundamental issue. It is prisoner numbers that have to be tackled if there is to be any progress. Back in 1910 Churchill had the idea of invoking the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to release or reduce the sentences of over 11,000 prisoners which, as he told the House of Commons:
“at a stroke struck 500 years of imprisonment and penal servitude from the prison population. I am glad to be able to tell the House that no evil results of any kind have followed from this.”
What Churchill would make of the state of our prisons now we can only imagine. Rather than his humane vision of prison reform, and clear-sighted determination to reduce the number of prisoners we have a sentencing ratchet that only ever turns in one direction, forcing the courts to pass ever longer sentences.
A prosecution right of appeal against sentence, at first available only for the most serious offences and used sparingly, is now used daily and is available for even comparatively minor offences. Only last week the Ministry of Justice announced that a further 19 offences would be added to what it revealingly called the “soft sentence correction scheme,” (as though sentences are automatically to be regarded as in need of correction if they are anything other than “hard”). A Sentencing Council was set up to ensure consistency of sentencing across the country: it has done so by ensuring that sentences are consistently more severe. Judges tempted to exercise leniency in any particular case are often unable to do so because of the combined effect of an over-rigid sentencing guideline and the threat of a prosecution appeal.
When did you last hear a minister warning that constantly increasing the length of prison sentences was extravagant and unsustainable populism that would do nothing to reduce crime but would waste public money while filling up our prisons beyond their capacity to cope?
On the other hand, when did you last hear a minister calling for tougher sentences? Perhaps earlier this week when Amber Rudd hinted at the introduction of life sentences for acid attacks. Or in December when the Ministry of Justice announced a “consultation” on increasing the sentences for fatal driving offences? Or in October when Sam Gyimah hinted at yet tougher sentences for knife crime.
And every time a sentence for one category of offence is increased there is a knock-on effect; other sentences come to seem lenient by comparison and so the demand grows for an increase in them as well. We already imprison 146 people in every 100,000, a higher proportion than any other Western European country, yet we do not have a markedly lower crime rate. It is a huge, expensive mistake.
A Churchillian amnesty cutting (let us say) 25% off the length of all determinate sentences. A positive commitment to release all prisoners still serving sentences of imprisonment for public protection, unless the parole board is satisfied that any individual is positively dangerous. The decriminalisation of all controlled drugs, and if that is too much then at least of cannabis. A statutory requirement that the Sentencing Council has regard to the effect on prison numbers when it sets guidelines. Prison space would be freed up, prison officers would again be able to engage in useful activity beyond simply locking and unlocking doors. The money saved could be invested in ensuring that prisons become places of rehabilitation, education and training instead of foetid oubliettes for the violent and the suicidal.
Sadly, at a time when the Government’s attention is concentrated on Brexit almost to the exclusion of anything else it is unlikely that much attention will be paid to Mr Clarke’s report. Our prison estate will continue to fester at huge public expense. It will remain a purposeless archipelago of misery bringing disgrace on our country for the foreseeable future.
First published in the Daily Telegraph 21st July 2017