Britain is locking up more people than ever—a policy that some say accounts for falling crime. But there may be other reasons for the drop in the crime rate. Are we imprisoning so many people because we have to, or because we want to?by Jonathan Wolff / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
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There are around 82,000 people in prison in Britain. Is that a lot or a little? How can we tell? Compared to the 2.2m people languishing in US jails it doesn’t sound all that many. Britain’s prisoners could fit into the new Wembley stadium with room to spare, although on the government’s own projections, all 90,000 Wembley seats will be taken sometime around 2010. Over the last five years, the prison population has grown by 20 per cent. Lord Carter, in a report for the government published last December, accepts that this trend will continue, and recommends a new prison-building programme so that supply can meet demand, which may reach 100,000 by 2014. (The government says it wants to stabilise the prison population at about 95,000. The Tories, by contrast, say they are happy to sail on through 100,000.)
Carter notes that the prison population in Britain has risen by 60 per cent since 1995. In Germany it has been more or less stable during this period, while in Canada it has fallen by 11 per cent. New Zealand just outstrips Britain, with 68 per cent growth since 1995, while even the US lags behind with 42 per cent. But it will be a long time before Britain catches up with the US in terms of the imprisonment rate: the US imprisons 750 people per 100,000, as against 149 in England and Wales and 136 in Scotland. Still, within Europe, our imprisonment rate is behind only former eastern bloc countries and, curiously, Luxembourg. The only west European country that comes close is Spain, which imprisons 146 per 100,000. By comparison, Germany imprisons 93 per 100,000, Turkey 91, France 85 and Italy 67.
Prison: what a strange thing it is. I can remember my shock as a child being told that some adults had done things so bad they had to be locked away, for years, until they knew better. I could hardly imagine anything worse. Prisons seem to belong to the age of the horse-drawn cart and the workhouse, not Eurostar and the internet. If anything, we should be phasing them out—converting old prisons into luxury flats as we do with unused warehouses and deconsecrated churches. Instead, we are building more and more—although apparently not enough to cope with the doubling of the prison population over the last 30 years.