Prison over-crowding: fewer prisoners or more prisons? Wrong, as usual

Here are two truisms. 

(1)  Gross overcrowding in our prisons has been a major problem for years.  It contributes to the inhuman conditions in many of our jails, obstructs rehabilitation and thus promotes re-offending, consequently doing incalculable harm to both prisoners and society. It demoralises both prisoners and prison officers and frustrates probation officers. It is phenomenally expensive compared with any other kind of treatment of offenders.  And we imprison a higher proportion of our population than any other comparable western country except the United States (with the highest percentage in the whole world), Luxembourg and (surprisingly) New Zealand, according to the 2005-2006 statistics (PDF file).

(2)  A very large number of the people now imprisoned in Britain ought not to be in prison at all:  many are there primarily because of their drug or alcohol addiction, or psychological problems, illiteracy and other educational inadequacy, or other kinds of inability to adapt to life in society, all of them conditions best treated outside rather than inside prison;  rates of re-offending are sky-high, demonstrating that prison in current conditions doesn't work (except in the primitive sense that a person in prison can't commit offences in society until he or she is released); and in particular people serving very short sentences — less than a year, say — generally derive no benefit from their imprisonment and their imprisonment confers no benefit on society.

You might think that putting these two truisms, neither of which is seriously disputed by anyone except possibly those who write and read the Daily Mail, together leads to an obvious and irresistible conclusion: namely that the solution to the problem of prison overcrowding is to remove from the prisons a sizeable number of people now in them, arranging for their problems to be addressed in other ways, and to ensure that far fewer people are sent to prison in future.  You might also think that no superhuman courage is required on the part of our political leaders to proclaim these elementary facts, to propound the obvious solution, and to put it into effect.  Unfortunately neither of these suppositions seems to hold good in the weird and frightened world of Whitehall and Westminster, where pandering to the tabloids' reactionary prejudices supersedes decency, common sense and logic:

The Home Office is working to find solutions as prison populations rise.  In July, Home Secretary John Reid announced plans to build 8,000 new prison places to cope with rising prison populations. The first 900 of these new places will be ready by Autumn 2007, but before then there's an immediate demand for more space.  To keep the public safe, it is critical that those who are convicted of crime – particularly of violent crime – serve their sentences behind bars, so room must be found for all of them. (October 2006, Home Office website)

Or this:

Three "super-prisons" each housing about 2,500 offenders are to be built, Justice Secretary Jack Straw has said.  Following a review of overcrowding in jails, he said a building programme would take prison place numbers up to 96,000 from the current 81,000 by 2014.  … The building programme … would cost an extra £1.2bn on top of the current £1.5bn, Mr Straw said. … One of the so-called Titan jails, which will be larger than any prison currently used in Britain, will be in service by 2012.  The other two are expected to be built by 2014.  He suggested they should be built in London, the West Midlands and the north-west of England.  [BBC news report, 5 December 2007]

Everyone with any claim to an expert view on the matter agrees that the prison population needs to be significantly reduced and that building more and more prisons is no solution, especially when the new prisons are to be so huge:  all the evidence shows that the smaller prisons achieve much better results than the big person-warehouses (none of the existing ones being as vast as Mr Straw's proposed Titan jails).  Successive Chief inspectors of Prisons, Lord Chief Justices and other judges, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the prisons' Independent Monitoring Boards, all recognise the logic of the situation and plead for a radical reduction in prisoner numbers as an infinitely superior solution to the knee-jerk, tabloid-appeasing alternative of simply building more and bigger prisons.  Tony Hatfield, retired solicitor and blogger, who knows whereof he speaks, puts much of the blame for the unnecessarily swollen prison population on the magistracy, which persists in sending more and more minor offenders to prison for uselessly short terms (his supporting facts and figures here).  

Or here is the Howard League on the impact of prison over-crowding:

  • Overcrowding means that over 12,000 prisoners are being held two to a cell designed for one. Many of these cells have unscreened toilets which fail to provide even the most basic of human dignity.
  • In a desperate attempt to find empty beds, prisoners are being transported all over the country.  In 2001, 37,000 prisoners were being held over 50 miles away from home, for 5,000 of these the distance was more than 150 miles.  This cost the taxpayer millions of pounds in transportation costs and in delays to the criminal justice system as a result of late arrivals for court appearances.  It also jeopardises family relationships and the chances of successful re-integration back into the community on release; tow of the most important factors in reducing re-offending.
  • The huge prison population is undermining any good work the prison service is trying to do in terms of making the prison experience constructive for the majority prisoners.  In 2001-2 the prison service failed to meet its own target of providing prisoners with at least 24 hours of purposeful activity for week.  Only 3 out of 40 of the male local prisons (those holding predominantly remand and short sentence prisoners) which suffer the worst overcrowding, managed to meet this target.
  • Prisons cost £2.2bn a year.  With re-offending rates after release still at about 60% (and over 75% for young offenders) prison is an expensive failure, which has no impact on crime levels or the fear of crime.
    [Howard league website]

It's understandable in a way that relevant recent ministers of the limited capacity of, e.g., Michael Howard, David Blunkett and John Reid should be incapable of overcoming the promptings of the tabloids and their own baser instincts by doing what's so obviously the right and necessary thing.  Charles Clarke might possibly have summoned up the necessary intestinal fortitude to set about reducing the prison population, had he not been banished from office by an ever-timid Tony Blair (over the relatively minor issue of failing to deport foreigners convicted of offences).  Jack Straw, ubiquitous and indestructible as ever, is no fool and has even admitted that he knows what ought to be done: 

The Government will not be able to build its way out of the prison crisis, Jack Straw suggested yesterday. He indicated that the only way the pressure could be relieved was by sending fewer people to jail and using more noncustodial sentences. (The Times, 12 July 2007)

— but the monstrous prison building programme goes on regardless and the swelling Jack Straw, Justice Secretaryprison population continues to break all records month by month.  By what intellectual gymnastics does Mr Straw justify this resounding failure to do what he knows to be the right and obvious thing?  (The same gymnastics, no doubt, as those which allowed him to remain in office as Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary at the time of the aggression against Iraq after his own department's legal advisers had warned him that the attack would be illegal, indeed a war crime.)

Prison over-crowding is a major national disgrace.  The solution to the problem is obvious, conforms to the evidence, saves money, benefits society, is favoured by the experts and professionals concerned, and represents a humane and practical course of action.  So what's the matter with these people who rule our country?


5 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    prison in current conditions doesn't work (except in the primitive sense that a person in prison can't commit offences in society until he or she is released)

    Even that's highly debatable, at least in cost-benefit terms (and presumably even Michael Howard wouldn't say that prison worked if its costs were demonstrably higher than leaving offenders on the streets). In the US penological literature, intelligent people spend vast amounts of time and energy reducing crime and punishment to formulae. One relatively straightforward example I read recently sets it out like this: if the average offender commits X offences per year, and if the cost of the average offence is Y, and if the 'elasticity'[1] of the offender population is Z, then each offender banged up saves society X * Y * Z – and if this is greater than the cost of incarcerating one offender, then bingo, prison 'works'. (Obviously this sets aside all the broader costs of prison, which are legion.) The same paper had the honesty to acknowledge that for this calculation to have any meaning we'd need to know the value of Z with some precision, which at present we don't. Which means that we cannot know whether prison 'works' or not – which in turn means that prison can't be justiified on even the most narrowly-focused take-the-offenders-out-of-circulation grounds .

    [1] Elasticity: the probability that banging up one offender diminishes the offender population by one. Elasticity is diminished by getting the wrong person in the first place and by replacement effects, i.e the same crime getting committed by someone else. The best guess in the US is that elasticity is somewhere between 0.1 and 0.5.

    Brian writes:  The conclusion of all this seems fine, but I'm baffled by the 'elasticity' concept in this context, although I understand it in other economics contexts.  It seems to me hard to dispute the fact that if, say, a habitual, serial offender burglar, who has been committing burglaries at the rate of one a month for many years, is locked up for a year, then there's a sporting likelihood that the number of burglaries in the relevant area will drop by around 12 during the year.  It seems unlikely that this hypothetical burglar's absence enjoying H.M.'s hospitality for a year is going to cause someone else, hitherto law-abiding, to step into his shoes and start burgling away as a sort of locum.  Even if it's the Daily Mail that tends to say it, isn't there a grain or three of truth in the proposition that one — not the only — cause of the overall drop in the crime figures might be that we have more villains under lock and key, serving longer sentences (including indeterminate sentences which keep them inside until they can 'prove' that they won't re-offend even after they have served their tariff), than ever before?  Not an argument for bulging prisons and disproportionately long or indeterminate sentences, but an apparently logical observation, surely?

  2. Phil says:

    The idea of replacement is more plausible if you think in terms of lower-level offenders moving up and creating a 'vacancy' to be filled by somebody who was previously operating on the margins of legality – street thieves becoming burglars, or drug retailers becoming drug dealers.

    As for the impact of imprisonment on the crime figures, here's an extract from a paper by Robert Reiner:

    The Home Office’s own calculation is that in order to obtain a 1 per cent fall in crime the prison population has to go up by 25 per cent (Tarling 1994). In so far as the reduction in crime is due to criminal justice policy at all, it is probably the result of much more sophisticated, intelligence-based strategies of policing and crime prevention bearing some fruit (Nuttall et al. 1998).

    Brian writes:  Thanks for this, Phil.  The Reiner extract (your last paragraph) is very striking.  I'm still not altogether convinced, though, by the idea of criminal vacancies waiting to be filled when a crook either moves up to more serious criminal activity or gets sent to jail:  this seems to posit a kind of zero sum game, with a fixed and finite number of criminals able to pursue their nefarious careers at any one time, complete with a waiting list.  I suppose the number of practitioners might be limited in some areas where burglars or prostitutes (not of course that prostitutes are criminals) stake out a zone or manor from which newcomers are excluded:  perhaps that's the sort of situation to which the concept applies.  

  3. Phil says:

    I don't think the idea of a finite number of car thieves or burglars is as counter-intuitive as it might appear. We know that an area can only support a certain number of barbers or butchers; in one area anyone setting up as a butcher would be liable to go out of business, in another they'd clean up. I should think something similar applies to illegal economic activity.

    Brian writes:  OK.  I buy that. Thanks.   

  4. John Miles says:

    What's the point of prison, or punishment, anyway?

    One: if you're someone who's likely to rob, rape or murder, imprisonment it will stop you from doing so again, on somebody else.

    This seems to me to be a pretty powerful argument'

    It implies that people likely to commit these kind of offences should be kept in prison, simply to protect the public, until – at least – the experts think they're unlikely to reoffend.

    Two: punishment deters us from committing crimes

    Speaking for myself, I would say this is true of comparatively trivial, "technical" crimes; eg speeding, illegal parking and violating bus lanes.

    I doubt very much if it would influence me if, for example, I seriously wanted to kill somebody.

    Three: prison rehabilitates people.

    Really? My impression is that time in prison simply helps beginners to get away with it.

    I work as a private tutor, helping people with their basic maths and English.

    I've offered my services to the prison service .

    They're not the least bit interested.

    To the best of my knowledge, the only treatment of crims that actually seems to work was sending them on "Outward Bound" type courses with one-to-one instructors.

    These were stamped on by Mr Howard.


    Because he was afraid somebody might actually enjoy their course,

    Four: crims deserve to be punished.

    Perhaps they do, but I think we tend to be a little bit too vindictive about it.

    So what's the answer?

    First, better parenting.

    Any other suggestions?

    Brian writes:  Your first 'point' heads down a steep and slippery slope.  You are in effect advocating 'preventive detention' of people deemed by "experts" to be likely to [re]offend, as justification for curtailing the liberties of people who have either not been convicted of any offence, or else who have served the retributive and deterrent elements of their sentences but are still kept behind bars.  This is dangerous stuff:  no expert can predict the future with sufficient confidence to decide who should be locked up for crimes not yet committed;  once the principle of preventive detention is accepted, there's unlikely to be any way of judging the moment when the detainee can safely be released, so such detention is liable to be in effect indefinite, thus amounting to psychological torture;  any of us can be assessed as a possible future offender, so the whole system is wide open to abuse for political, ideological or other totalitarian purposes;  and the numerous punitive aspects of imprisonment with convicted criminals are manifestly inappropriate, indeed monstrously unjust, when imposed on people who are being detained purely to segregate them from society, not in any way to punish them (since they have not yet committed the offence which they are supposed to be likely to commit in the future).  How to justify depriving such internees of their family life, conjugal rights,  access to entertainment, education and human society, careers, professional and other job satisfactions, freedom to travel and live wherever they like…?  Preventive detention, increasingly resorted to by New Labour with the supine consent of parliament and the surprising collusion of the judiciary in the frenzy of panic over terrorism, is an instrument of oppression, recognised as such by Churchill even at the height of a savage war fought for our national survival, and a gross infringement of our most fundamental civil liberties.

    "Winston Churchill who, originally a strong supporter of the regulation [18B, which permitted the preventive detention in wartime of British and other fascist sympathisers], came later to recognise its danger to democratic freedom and … described it as `in the highest degree odious´. [Quoted from this.]

  5. John Miles says:

    You're absolutely right, but lots of arguments are thought to be, or actually are, capable of leading us down slippery slopes; that doesn't necessarily mean they're complete rubbish.

    I can't help feeling it's a bit of a liberty to accuse me of advocating detention for people who are thought to be "likely to …. offend". as justification for "curtailing the liberties of people who have … not been convicted of any offence."

    Obviously I should have expressed myself better, but all I was trying to say was that people likely to commit these kind of offences should be kept in prison, simply to protect the public, until – at least – the experts think they're unlikely to reoffend.

    "Reoffend," not "offend."

    "Experts" are people we all love to hate.

    Yet, likee lumpee, almost everybody – apart from the actual jurors – involved in banging people up is some sort of a self-confessed expert: judge, legislator, trick-cyclist, whoever decides about parole, open prisons and remission, etc etc.

    I asked, "What's the point of prison, or punishment, anyway?"

    Not, repeat not, meant to be a rhetorical question.

    Brian writes:  I don't see any distinction in terms of injustice between (a) locking up people who have never been convicted of any offence because so-called "experts" think they might offend in the future, and (b) locking up people who have been convicted of an offence but have served their sentences and "paid their debt to society" but are kept behind bars because so-called "experts" think they might re-offend in the future — the category you refer to.  I say "so-called" and put the word experts in quotation marks because there's obviously no such thing as expertise in foretelling the future, and a probation officer, magistrate, judge, or social worker is no more likely to guess correctly who is likely to commit an offence in the future than you or me, regardless of whether any particular person has offended in the past and completed his or her punishment for it.  Preventive detention is in plain breach of elementary justice and civil liberties, and whether someone has offended previously and been punished for it is irrelevant.

    There's plenty of literature and a fair amount of consensus on what the purpose of both prison and punishment is, broadly summed up in the three words retribution, deterrence and reform.   (Not everyone accepts that retribution is a legitimate aim of punishment, however, although it seems to be the only legitimate purpose of punishment in the eyes of the Daily Mail, its readers and believers, and very many victims and their relatives, unfortunately.)  In the case of prison there's an implied fourth purpose, namely to remove the offender from society for a fixed term in order to protect society from the possibility of further offending during the term set;  but the protection of society can't justify a longer period of removal from society than is proportionate to the degree of gravity of the offence being punished, as expressed in the court's sentence.  It's unjust to keep a shop-lifter in jail for life against the risk, however strong, that she (or he) will shop-lift again if released — to take an extreme but legitimate example.  There are some risks that society, like individuals, simply has to accept, including those risks against which effective protection entails injustice (or expense) out of proportion to the risk in question.  Otherwise three-quarters of the population would be permanently behind bars and the other 25 per cent would be living permanently in bomb-proof shelters.  (Mind you, we're heading that way as it is, thanks to the cowardice of our political leaders of both main parties.)