Justice Secretary Chris Grayling came under a lot of fire back in March over his decision to effectively ban books in prisons. This decision has recently been found unlawful, and quite rightly too. But this is just a part of a wider pattern in which the prison system is made ever more inhospitable and cruel. This year we’ve heard about death from overcrowding in prisons, sexual abuse in prisons, and all of this in front of a backdrop of increased privatisation and cuts to legal aid, both of which serve to make the system less accountable when abuses happen.
Now, if you believe the justice system is primarily for hurting those who have done wrong, maybe you don’t see any issue with that. But I believe the purpose of the justice system should be to rehabilitate offenders, to help them get into a place where they are less likely to commit crimes in the future. I think that’s the best way to ensure what’s best for society. But are prisons compatible with the idea of rehabilitation?
Let’s look at some demographics. 11% of the UK prison population is black, compared to just 2.8% of the general population; in other words, there are four times as many black people in prison as you’d expect. When you combine this with the racism endemic in the police force (see Mark Duggan and events like Ferguson in the US), it’s clear that black people are getting a raw deal from every stage of the justice system.
For mental health issues, the situation is horrific: according to the Prison Reform Trust, almost half of female prisoners in the UK have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Now, mental illness is something I myself struggle with. I can only imagine how much worse it must be to have to deal with depression from the inside of a prison cell.
But maybe it’s worth it. Maybe prison is effective enough to offset this, right? Well, according to government statistics, almost half of people given prison sentences go on to reoffend – and half of those people just go straight back to prison. There’s also analysis done for the Ministry of Justice that shows that community orders, suspended sentences and court orders – all sentences that don’t involve going to prison – are all better than short prison sentences at reducing reoffending rates.
Now, the Ministry of Justice itself admits that an important factor in whether criminals reoffend is whether they have non-criminal social connections. In that respect it seems bizarre that our default response to crime is to put the offenders all in a building together. And contrary to what you’d hope, some people end up dependent on the prison system to survive, though this is hardly surprising when more than a third of employers deliberately avoid recruiting people with a criminal record.
All this evidence says one thing to me: that prisons don’t work. That means that beyond resisting efforts to make prisons crueler, we need to be working towards replacing the whole system with one built around an evidence-based approach to reforming offenders. We can’t let our instinctive response to wrongdoing be to simply lock people up in a system designed to rob them of their humanity. If we want a truly safe society, we have to be kinder than that.