current affairs human rights

The politics of prisons

This weekend the Saturday paper had two stories about prisons, side by side on the page. One was about the introduction of a mandatory ‘lights out’ policy for young offenders’ institutions, as Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has dictated a bedtime of 10:30. The other story covered a petition by 40 high-profile authors, asking the government to reconsider the ban on friends and family sending books to prisoners.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of those policies, it’s another reminder of an age old debate about how we treat prisoners. Is prison about punishment or rehabilitation? Should it be a deterrent to keep people in line, or should the focus be on learning responsibility so that people can re-integrate into society? The choice matters because, unfortunately, it’s hard to have both.

The prevailing idea in Britain is that prison is supposed to be punishment. Witness the outcry over the EU suggesting inmates should be allowed to vote, the perennial tabloid fretting over the presence of televisions and Playstations in prisons, or the way Kenneth Clarke was re-shuffled from the position of Justice Secretary after he was deemed too progressive. Or the banning of small parcels from family, including the aforementioned books, which are seen to undermine the government’s recently centralized rewards scheme. We want people’s experience of prison to be miserable, so that they’ll think twice about re-offending.

The trouble is, prison doesn’t seem to work very well. Britain has over 80,000 citizens in prison. Almost half of those released from prison re-offend, but that depends on the prison. It’s as high as 70% for some institutions. Crime continues to fall overall, but an increasing percentage of crimes are committed by re-offenders. A third of convictions for serious offenses are given to those who already have 15 or more convictions to their name. These sorts of figures aren’t uncontested, but those with the most experience of prison don’t look particularly deterred by it.

Of course, to many minds if re-offending rates are high then the answer is to make conditions worse so that people are more scared of it. But that argument misses the unintended consequences of prison, and the way that they infantilise inmates. Children have set bedtimes, have their meals prepared for them, are told when they can go out and play and when they can’t. The less responsibility for their own lives prisoners have, the less prepared they are for life when they get out.

Countries with lower re-offending rates tend to be those that prioritise rehabilitation rather than revenge. Norway is the leader here. The governor of Bastoy, the prison with the lowest re-offending rate in Europe, describes the philosophy:

‘Bastoy takes the opposite approach to a conventional prison where prisoners are given no responsibility, locked up, fed and treated like animals and eventually end up behaving like animals. Here you are given personal responsibility and a job and asked to deal with all the challenges that entails. It is an arena in which the mind can heal, allowing prisoners to gain self-confidence, establish respect for themselves and in so doing respect for others too.’

If you’ve reading anything about Bastoy itself, you’ll know it’s a radical experiment even in Norway, but the principle is simple. If you want people to behave like responsible adults in society, then prison needs to foster responsible adult behaviour. Alternatively, prison can be avoided altogether. Community sentences have a re-offending rate of around 35%, typically 10% better than prison.

This is an issue that needs bold leadership, because there’s a damaging disconnect in our culture. We want to punish prisoners, but the evidence suggests this makes things worse. If we want lower crime and savings on our extortionate prisons bill, we need to focus on rehabilitation. And that means winning some arguments, changing the culture, and taking some political risks. It’s far easier to ignore the evidence and play to the tabloids. The press love a bit of ‘tough on crime’, ‘lock-em-up’ rhetoric, but it doesn’t make our streets any safer.



  1. Prison doesn’t work. Sweden has falling number of people in prison and the country is nor in the grip of a crime wave. Why is Britain so very different?

  2. The fall in crime has been across the developed world, regardless if they have rising or falling numbers of prisoners, how well they rehabilitate them or even the levels of inequality in those societies.

    The causes of the fall in crime seem to be more to do with ageing population, better policing and better security. (Nice article in The Economist last year on this )

    It does appear it is true to say that “Lock ’em up” doesn’t make our streets any safer, but it doesn’t make them less safe either.

    Personally I would like a bigger effort on rehabilitation but I’d focus on those with their first or second time in prison. After that they are more likely to be hardened criminals so rehabilitation is less likely to work so don’t waste limited resources on them..

    1. Good article in the Economist, I remember reading that one before.

      And yes, the focus on first or second incarcerations is important – and that should be incarcerations, not convictions. One would hope that first convictions would see a community sentence. Once someone has been put in prison, every opportunity should be given to offer training. The government has been talking about building the first prison college, which is more in the right direction.

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