Confronting the punishment culture

FRFI 174 August / September 2003

On 11 July the recorded prison population in England and Wales exceeded 74,000 for the first time ever. In the previous four weeks the number of prisoners had risen by 633 to 74,012. NICKI JAMESON reports.

In total the prison population has risen by 2,532 in the past year and is 30,000 higher than 10 years ago. At that time Britain already had the highest per capita prison population in Western Europe, at 103 prisoners out of every 100,000 of the total population. This remains the case, with the figure now having risen to 139 per 100,000. More people are gaoled in England and Wales than in any other western European country and more people are imprisoned per head than in Algeria (111), Egypt (121), Libya (127), Malaysia (121), Burma (118), Turkey (93) or Saudi Arabia (110), and far more than in India (28), Pakistan (51) or Nigeria (34).

Of today’s English and Welsh prison population, 10,604 are aged between 15 and 21 years old, 545 of whom are girls. There are 4,059 adult women in prison.

With his usual hypocrisy, Home Secretary David Blunkett is publicly encouraging judges to make greater use of community sentences and curfew orders and saying custody should only be used when strictly necessary. For the second time this year, the number of days out of a short sentence that can be served outside prison with a curfew monitored by an electronic tagging device has been increased, going up first from 60 to 90, and now to 135. However, at the same time, Blunkett is rewriting sentencing law to ensure that harsher sentences will be passed and longer tariffs given to life sentence prisoners (see last two FRFIs).

Commentators sympathetic to the Labour government portray Blunkett’s approach as one whereby custody is the last resort for those committing petty crimes but will be used strictly and punitively against those committing more serious offences. Although it has been statistically proven by the Penal Affairs Consortium that such an approach would in itself result in a steep increase in the prison population, it would be capable of attracting a certain public popularity – understanding towards shop-lifters, people with drug problems, those with disorderly life-styles; ruthless punishment for anyone who commits a violent or sexual offence. However, it is not what is happening.

Instead, custodial sentences are being increasingly used across the spectrum, with a culture of punishment encouraged at every level by politicians, judges and the media. A recent report by the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) found that people convicted of minor offences are three times more likely to be jailed for the same offence than in 1991.

There is no sign of this trend being reversed any time in the near future. Almost every measure in the current Criminal Justice Bill is set to increase imprisonment, whether by the direct implementation of longer sentences, or by the indirect increase that will result from the reimprisonment of those who breach the very long and detailed release licences they will be subject to.

And although the system looks to be bursting, the fact that every new gaol is now privately financed means there will always be a strong lobbying body in favour of increased imprisonment. In England, Group 4 currently runs Altcourse, Rye Hill and The Wolds prisons, Premier Prisons run Ashfield, Doncaster, Lowdham Grange and Dovegate, and United Kingdom Detention Services (UKDS) run Forest Bank. In Wales, Securicor runs Parc prison. Two more prisons, one run by UKDS and the other jointly by UKDS and Premier, are due to open at Ashford and Peterborough. These companies will always be happy to compete for more contracts to imprison more men, women and children, and they also run secure units for children and detention centres for asylum seekers.

However, even with private finance prisons are not being built fast enough to house the growing numbers imprisoned, and it is the same old decaying Victorian prisons that were full to bursting in the late 1980s prior to the Strangeways revolt that are the fullest now. At local prisons, where large numbers of people are remanded in custody by the courts, it is proving increasingly difficult for those awaiting trial to contact their lawyers. Booking a legal visit can take weeks, and when the visit eventually happens, it is likely to be severely limited in time. Booking social visits is even harder and more dispiriting, with the statement in the Prison Rules that remand prisoners can have as many visits as are available rendered meaningless by the impossibility of getting through the booking system or finding an empty slot for the visit.

Where a convicted prisoner then ends up serving their sentence has also degenerated into a farcical lottery. There are prisoners in Swaleside in Kent trying to get to the northeast of England; prisoners in Frankland in Durham whose families are in London; prisoners on the Isle of Wight who get no visits as everyone who could see them is in Birmingham or Manchester and cannot travel. And so on. This has always been the reality for prisoners, as neither the British nor European courts have ever accepted that the ‘right to family life’ extends to prisoners being located near enough to their families for visits to take place. But it has been possible to negotiate transfers either permanently or for ‘accumulated visits’. The more clogged up the system becomes, the more difficult this becomes, both because it is genuinely hard to arrange with so many prisoners, and because prison staff use it as a convenient excuse.

And while staff in the new private prisons are notorious for ignoring prisoners’ rights and inventing their own rules, those in the old infamous POA-run prisons, such as Wandsworth or Parkhurst, remain as brutal and bullying as ever. A recent report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons described Parkhurst as somewhere where prisoners’ safety could not be guaranteed, and highlighted their assertions that the gaol is institutionally racist, a claim borne out by a simple examination of the high number of black prisoners detained at any one time in the gaol’s massive segregation unit.

Within such a climate, violence and abuse thrive; suicide and self-harm are on the rise. According to another PRT report, a record number of women prisoners have committed suicide in prison this year – with 10 deaths in the first six months of 2003, more than in the whole of 2002.
There have also been 26 attempted suicides and nearly 3,000 reported incidents of self-harm during this period.

A year ago, we wrote: ‘Although the 1990 revolt, which began at Strangeways prison in Manchester, was primarily caused by the appalling attitude and brutality of prison staff, there can be no doubt that the overcrowded, insanitary conditions in which prisoners were being held for up to 23 hours a day, for weeks on end, played a major role in fuelling discontent. Since Strangeways, the state has largely kept the prison population subdued through carrot-and-stick measures such as parole and the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme. But with more and more prisoners shoved into the system every week, many of these measures become inoperable, and ultimately irrelevant. The desire for “privileges” cannot be used to divide and rule if there are none to be had and the system can only manage containment.’ (FRFI 167 June/July 2002)

At the beginning of June, prisoners at Wealstun, a low security prison in West Yorkshire, took to the rooftop of the gaol, in protest at their exercise and association being cut. Last October saw a major disturbance at Lincoln prison, and in January this year Scottish prisoners at Shotts rose up twice within the space of weeks. While such episodes of resistance are currently sporadic, if the system continues to crowd prisoners in at the rate it is doing, to entirely disregard their need to be located somewhere they can retain family ties, and to trample over their basic rights, another mass uprising on the scale of 1990 may not be far off.


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