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Howard League blog · 20 Dec 2016

The answer to the prison crisis is simple: less is better

Yesterday, Liz Truss made a statement and answered questions in Parliament following the riot in Birmingham prison.

She reiterated her plan to recruit more staff, although this will only replace a quarter of those who were got rid of by her predecessor-but-one. Other plans involve curtailing the use of mobile phones and testing for drugs. I believe her when she says she is primarily concerned about safety and that her aim is to make prisons places that provide a positive experience. Unfortunately, her plans are far too unambitious and will not have the desired effect.

It is worth looking back at how prisons got into this mess. Labour presided over an explosion in the use of prison, locking up the poor, the mentally ill and the annoying in ever greater numbers. It poured billions into building new prisons to cope with this human flood and invested in basic skills education. The money was never enough to deal properly with the torrent of humanity being crammed into jails but was just about enough to keep a lid on suicides and unrest.

Ken Clarke was genuinely shocked at the size of the prison population when he took over as Lord Chancellor in the Coalition government. He introduced measure to control the magistrates’ propensity to remand to custody and tried to improve regimes. Slowly, numbers went down.

Chris Grayling wanted to be seen to be tough. He closed prisons and crammed people into fewer establishments and drastically cut staff, both officers and managers. The result was an increase in violent assaults on prisoners and staff, an increase in self-injury and an increase in suicides. This year we have already surpassed the record number of people taking their own lives.

Michael Gove undid some of Grayling’s policies but, most importantly, he led a national conversation to try to get a consensus that prison should be a place for the few and even they could be redeemed.

Meanwhile, prisons deteriorated.

Liz Truss has only been in the job for five months. She has a stark choice and she has, I think, made the wrong decision. It is simply not feasible to make prisons safe and purposeful by recruiting a few more staff. The only solution to the prison crisis is to have fewer prisoners.

The prisons are bloated with people who are serving excessively long sentences. There has, rightly, been concern about people who are years past their tariff on indeterminate sentences that were abolished years ago, but, there are thousands of others who are the victims of sentence inflation.

Liz Truss needs the support of the Prime Minister to deal with the prison crisis. She needs to reduce the number of people in prison and there are various technical routes to achieve this. But most importantly, she has to take advantage of the ground laid by Michael Gove and the public understanding of the crisis arising from the riots, murders and deaths. This is the time to take control and be bold. She should say she is going to reduce the prison population to what it was under Margaret Thatcher. By halving the number of prisoners, she could make prisons safe and purposeful and she could save public money.

We don’t need to squander more money on building ever more cesspit prisons. The answer to the crisis is simple: less is better.


  • Terry Cooper says:

    Entirely agree. Populist policies that criminalise more and more aspects of life are fundamentally mistaken. If we don’t like the way people behave, we should start by encouraging people to change their behaviour through education and argument, rather than the blind use of the criminal justice system.

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