It is not radical to want to close prisons

Why can the government not accept the evidence that they do more harm than good?

December 13, 2022
Photo: Finnbarr Webster Editorial / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Finnbarr Webster Editorial / Alamy Stock Photo

In late November, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) sent a request to the National Police Chiefs’ Council to establish a protocol known as Operation Safeguard, which would allow for the emergency use of 400 police cells for prisoners. It is the first time such a request has been made for over a decade and the police estate is not suitable for such a task. One Police Federation chair explained that seeking to place prisoners in police cells meant his officers were effectively being asked to “perform the roles of social workers, mental health specialists, ambulance drivers and now prison officers—and are then criticised for not tackling crime quickly enough!” 

Campaigners accused the MoJ of dangerous incompetence. In response, ministers blamed the pandemic and the recent barristers’ strike—a reaction which prioritised deflection over evidence-based penal policy. The proper solution to what is essentially a crisis of over-criminalisation and over-incarceration is to release a range of prisoners who need not be detained, before implementing a properly thought-through strategy for prisons that meets the needs of inmates and society at large.

There are over 80,000 people in prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales. A huge number are on remand, not convicted of any crime and supposedly presumed innocent. They are the prisoners most likely to commit suicide. Many of those waiting will be found not guilty or will be sentenced to less time than they have served. Thousands will be held in strict confinement for relatively minor offences, even where reasonable alternatives are known to be effective. 

Many people in the criminal justice system have grown up in care, experienced childhood violence, or had problems with mental health and drug dependency (or a combination of these). Fifty-three per cent of women in prison experienced abuse as a child and 57 per cent are survivors of domestic violence. Racial minorities are overrepresented. 

They are all forced to suffer the extraordinary effects of incarceration, as are nearly 3,000 people who were “Imprisoned for Public Protection”—a discredited regime riddled with inconsistencies and ensnaring many more people than originally envisioned, which is why it was abolished 10 years ago. Against this background, extending the prison estate to police cells is a brutal lack of a solution. In 2015, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary emphasised the guiding principle that a person should be held in a police station for the minimum time necessary, especially when vulnerable.

The evidence-based case for closing prisons and releasing prisoners is often ignored. There is an abject failure of bail systems where there is a troubling trend related to the use of custodial remand alongside ever-increasing sentences which do nothing to prevent crime, and an appalling “container” mentality. Inmates are “warehoused” in dire conditions, so that they cannot possibly begin the process of rehabilitation that is so essential to addressing the reasons why they have offended and finding out how to prevent them being back in reoffending situations. The current numbers crisis presents an opportunity for the MoJ to reduce the size of the prison population through bail, sentencing and parole decisions.

Yet as things stand, the government’s policies will increase the prison population by 20,000 by 2026. Andrea Coomber, CEO of the Howard League for Penal Reform, captures it neatly: “It is hard to imagine any area of public policy where government policy is developed so directly against the government’s own evidence base. Government knows what works and what doesn’t work… It is a disgrace.” 

It is possible to make the alternatives appear legitimate to the public, the media and politicians. For example, the charity Coaching Inside and Out has provided bespoke support to around 1,500 inmates and those at risk of offending, to understand what they really want in life and to change how they see their place in the world. That might involve working to beat an addiction, getting an education, starting their own business or finding more ways to help others. This kind of model, which emphasises rehabilitation over retribution, is surely part of the answer for all but the truly dangerous. 

Prisons waste lives, waste money and don’t work. It is not really all that radical to want to close them. The MoJ should be working towards a criminal justice system that functions intelligently for victims, offenders and the wider community. Not to do so will put the police and public at risk.

In the 19th century, after the Marshalsea prison in Southwark had closed, Dickens wrote: “the world is none the worse without it.” In the 21st century we can do a lot better.