It’s time for a Churchillian approach to our disgraceful prisons

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.

Solutions are staring us in the face, if only the politicians had the courage to move away from simplistic demands for ever more punitive sentences.

Churchill: invoked prerogative of mercy


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

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

19 thoughts on “It’s time for a Churchillian approach to our disgraceful prisons”

  1. Such graphs are never linear.

    It could be viewed as being stable until WW1, falling to a lower level as men were otherwise engaged and then killed off, in enormous numbers, and remaining there, not until the start of WW2, but until the end of it.

    The appearance of the start of an upward trend at the beginning of WW2 might just have been natural variability, or were people being imprisoned because of conscription issues, or were they “refugees’ who were really criminals, or do the figures include interned Germans?

    However, clearly there is a steady rise from some time around WW2.

    And there may be several reasons ranging from lack of major wars occupying or eliminating certain types of character, to the country importing increasing numbers of criminals.

    1. 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, consistent with the maintenance of law and order, must be taken constantly to minimise the number of persons who are committed to gaol.

      1. I don’t know what your “point” has to do with my comment. Perhaps you “replied” to the wrong one.

        But as you’ve raised it, I would have thought that “The first real principle which should guide anyone trying to” keep out of prison would be to stop breaking the law.

        And if you want to “establish a good system of prisons” that “should be to prevent as many people as possible getting there at all” the best way to do it would be to make prisons a deterrent.

        Are you talking about innocent but wrongly convicted inmates when you say: “There is an injury to the individual, consistent with the maintenance of law and order, must be taken constantly to minimise the number of persons who are committed to gaol”.

        The principle that it is better that ten guilty go free rather than one innocent be jailed?

        At the moment we seem to have plenty of the innocents or the guilty of non crimes (BBC License Tax anyone) being imprisoned.

        While real repeat criminals seem to be able to get away with murder, literally, and if they don’t they are soon let out to kill again.

        What about maximising the number of guilty persons who are committed to gaol to minimise the injury to the innocent individual, and the public in general consistent with the actual maintenance of law and order?!

  2. Wasn’t prison accomodation, at one time, supposed to be on a par with that in public schools?!

  3. “The decriminalisation of all controlled drugs, and if that is too much then at least of cannabis.”

    Wouldn’t it be better to enquire into whether they cause crime first.

    I don’t mean theft to pay for illegal drugs.

    I mean the increased tendency for criminals on mind altering substances to chew off people’s ears, noses, entire faces, cut off their heads, or kill people in large numbers?!

    1. I agree that the criminality that surrounds drug supply leads to violence. That’s why I support decriminalisation. The main direct danger from drugs is overdosing because the drugs are unexpectedly potent or poisoning from whatever gunk has been used to cut them. 2 more reasons why decriminalisation makes sense.

      1. You have obviously never worked in mental health, and seen people acutely psychotic for weeks on end as a result of having taken ‘spice’!

        1. Spice is a very good example of the malign unintended consequences of criminalisation. It was invented as a legal substitute for the much less harmful cannabis. Had we not criminalised cannabis nobody would have bothered to invent spice.

          1. A TV documentary a year or more ago showed how the drug “spice” was being smuggled into prisons and how prisoners were filming each other getting intoxicated on this drug. I think it was another documentary that showed how prison officers in many prisons are now unable to exercise effective control over the inmates due to lack of staffing and training. We can expect many prisoners to enter prison without a drug habit and leave prison with a craving for dangerous drugs, yet there is seemingly no appetite among the public or politicians for prison reform and for spending more money on a properly staffed prison service and effective rehabilitation. Journalists occasionally make a fuss about Muslim radicalisation in prison but they display no interest in the other ways that prisoners are threatened, bullied and corrupted by others.

      2. But you’ve completely ignored my point and addressed the point I’d specifically said that wasn’t referring to.

        If lots of muggers injured themselves with cheap, illegally bought Chinese flick-knives or lots of street-gang members shot themselves with illegal, fake Uzi copies would your first concern be to decriminalise flick-knives and Uzis.

        Sorry, but if a dope-hesd dies halfway through chewing off my nose, never mind hacking off my head, the fact he’s been conned by his dealer isn’t going to be my main concern.

        I didn’t force him to take illegal drugs!

        1. This nose chewing & head chopping stuff you’re talking about doesn’t usually come about because people are high on drugs (except alcohol). It comes about because the drugs trade is a black market run by gangsters. There’s very little of that sort of thing in the wine trade nowadays. Cf Chicago in the prohibition era. The parallels are pretty striking.

          1. Sorry, but which parallels?

            A relatively tiny number of Federal Agents tried to close down illegal commercial distilleries.

            As I understand it production or purchase for personal consumption were perfectly legal and the movie depiction of dozens of officers raiding speakeasies and hauling away the customers was, shall we say, artistic licence?!

            No parallels there then!

            As far as I’m aware this nose chewing & head chopping stuff i’m talking about doesn’t usually come about because people are drunk.

            In fact, I get the distinct impression they occur because people have spent years being on one or more of a mix of high quality, highly regulated, prescription drugs, and possibly quite pure, or adulterated with probably quite harmless additives, illegal drugs.

            The whole point of legal and illegal highs is that they alter your mental state, and there seems to be very little research on the harmful aspects of that (possibly only affecting a minority of users).

            But I’ve never heard a liberal argue that speeding, knife carrying, or even handguns should be decriminalised because only a tiny proportion of users cause or suffer harm, and in fact most drivers, boy scouts and Olympic shooters hold down responsible jobs and harm no one!

            Oh, and there is very little harm from drugs in Japan despite proper prohibition!!!

  4. Thank you Matthew, a brilliantly written, thoughtful, humane, well argued case.
    The graph showing comparison of prison-numbers across European countries is a massive eye-opener – no surprise to see the Scandawegian countries at the low end of the spectrum, clearly there’s something about those societies that reduce criminal activity. And I’m sure I’ve read that recidivism-rates in these countries is also very low i.e. rehabilitation can work.
    (Possible typo just before that graph? “a higher proportion than any other Western European country, yet we do not have a markedly lower crime rate.” Did you mean we DO have a lower crime rate? or ‘we do not have a markedly HIGHER crime rate’?)

    1. Scandawegian countries might well be at the low end of the spectrum (of around half of European countries, states and territories – there are actually around 50!), but what is actually being measured and when.

      It always rings alarm bells for me when I see “selected countries”, not least because I start to wonder what else has been “selected”!

      And, yes, clearly there’s something about those societies that reduce “criminal activity”.

      Could it be because they are, or were, very small, close-knit, inter-related, highly social, societies, with the population grouped closely together in isolated communities where everyone knew each other and depended on each other for survival?

      Or could it be because they swept crime under the carpet because of that?

      Or a combination of the two?!

      And has anything changed since the year o years on which the graph was based?

      For example isn’t Sweden now the rape capital of the world?

      Perhaps they treat rather than punish rapists there?

      Or banish them to foreign embassies?

      Or perhaps they simply aren’t very good at catching criminals?!

        1. Exactly.

          And what are their definitions of other crimes, prison, etc?

          And then there’s the graph’s compilers own definitions and interpretations, plus their “selection” of countries to present.

  5. As always brilliant, thoughtful and thought-provoking, poignant and sad. Something else to make some of us ashamed of what this country is becoming. Thank you, Matthew.

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