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Reid's prison disaster
HOME SECRETARY John Reid is under great pressure from the media and MPs after several well-publicised crises and humiliations about his department's work in law enforcement. He has also come under attack for reiterating the position that magistrates should only jail the most dangerous and persistent criminals. This is a bid to ease overcrowding in prisons in England and Wales, that are full to the point of bursting. IAIN DALTON looks behind the headlines.
IN NOVEMBER last year, the prison population exceeded 80,000 for the first time ever, increasing at a rate of 2.4% or 1,790 prisoners per year. Britain puts 143 out of every 100,000 people behind bars, now having Europe's largest prison population.
Some of the 139 prisons are overcrowded up to 130% of their capacity. Despite the government making police cells available to accommodate prisoners under Operation Safeguard, in some areas prisoners are accommodated in court cells. All this is whilst government figures tell us that crime is decreasing.
Labour looks set to copy the Tories' policies from the last time there was a prison overcrowding problem: build more prisons, and most likely private prisons. Reid is apparently securing treasury funding for an extra 8,000 prison places. The last overcrowding crisis in the early 1990s was the excuse for the Tories to introduce privatisation in this arena.
Britain now has the largest percentage of private prisons in the world (though the USA has the highest number of privatised prisons). But this 'solution' has been shown to fail. Not only has the prison population risen to take up that capacity, but private prisons are among the most overcrowded.
There has also been an attempt to extend early release, also introduced following previous prison crises. However, despite the keenness to increase the role of electronic tagging (privatised since inception), upwards from the 3,000 prisoners currently released early subject to tagging, it has seen resistance from the courts, and is less likely.
Labour have also been keen to bolster community punishments as an alternative to prison, however, Labour's legislation has increasingly made community punishment an addition to prison, rather than an alternative. The 2003 Criminal Justice Act allows judges to 'pick and mix' various penalties for offenders, leading to increases in both rather than a shift from prison to community.
ACADEMIC CRIMINOLOGISTS are keen to point out that the judiciary is 'the crux of the crisis'. Indeed as 97% of all cases are tried at a magistrates' court, determining guilt and sentencing mostly lies in the hands of unelected middle- and upper-class individuals. Many prisoners are debtors or have been sentenced for minor crimes.
The judiciary tend to support heavy punishment, which can be seen in the increase in numbers sentenced to prison and sentence lengths, especially the new indeterminate public protection sentence for current offenders introduced in 2005, which has been imposed on 1,890 prisoners, and is set to increase to over 12,000 in the next five years.
Institutionalised racism is also present. There are disproportionate numbers of ethnic minority prisoners, with disproportionately long sentences. Many from a similar class background to judges get much lower sentences (or are completely let off). However, it is not just the judiciary that are the problem.
Whilst there is not the discontent within prisons of the early 1990s (which saw rioting) conditions are continually worsening as a result of overcrowding and are far from the 'luxury accommodation' right-wing commentators criticise. Up to three prisoners can be accommodated within a single small cell.
Many prisoners get no access to decent education or training facilities, with resulting high illiteracy and innumeracy. Additionally, the increase in prison population has made prisons more understaffed than ever.
Many prisoners are locked in their cells for most of the day, which as POA (prison officers' union) leader Brian Caton pointed out in a recent interview for the socialist means that any supposed rehabilitation cannot occur. The morale and working conditions of staff are deteriorating.
With roughly 60% of prisoners re-offending, how does the prison system actually stop crime? Although New Labour say they have been tough on crime, they have not made the situation any better, and have probably made it worse, for the general public, prisoners and the staff inside the prisons.
CAPITALIST POLITICIANS from the main parties have repeatedly shown they have no long-term solution to crime apart from locking increasing numbers of people up for ever-longer periods of time, which just the makes the problem of overcrowding even worse. Only socialists have a real solution to this crisis.
A socialist programme to give jobs and training for all on a living wage, with housing and other essentials of life under public ownership and control would be necessary to begin to overcome the present levels of crime.
A socialist programme would call for steps such as releasing all debtors and those in prison for trivial crimes immediately. This would instantly reduce prison overcrowding, and improve conditions for prison staff. Other cases should be reviewed by democratically elected bodies.
Socialists must also campaign for the right to trial by jury in all cases and a democratically elected judiciary earning no more than the average wage of a worker and subject to recall at any time. Privately owned prisons should be returned to the public sector.
In The Socialist 1 February 2007:
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