A Game of Penal Sardines

Another week, another crisis in the criminal justice system. This week it is prison overcrowding. The Chief Inspector of Prisons has warned about the crisis that is building. The prison estate would appear to be bursting at the seams. Figures from the Howard League show there are 85,410 prisoners being held this week. This has risen by nearly 1,000 in a month. Importantly this is 12% above Certified Normal Accommodation. Some prisons (Swansea, Leicester, Lincoln) are approaching double their CNA number of prisoners.

So our Minister of Justice reacts by saying the public want to see more offenders being locked up. He says there is no problem at all. He has 1,000 empty prison spaces just waiting to satiate the public appetite for more porridge. The CNA, he says, is simply a figure that just represents an ideal of prisoners one to a cell. What if a few prisoners have to bunk up together? It is times of austerity. We all need to pitch in.

Now this is either deliberately stupid or stupidly stupid. The capacity of a prison is not about how many square feet there are to squeeze in a mattress or two on the floor. It is not about just prisoners having a bit of privacy. Prisons are not just dormitories. They have health care, staffing, catering, educational and rehabilitative functions. And those functions are impaired when a prison is operating at 150% of its capacity. It means there are not enough staff to ensure safety. It means there are not enough staff to provide education and rehabilitation. Prisoners are locked up for more and more hours per day. It is a tinderbox of potential trouble in the wings and it is a ticking time bomb of offenders waiting to return to the community with prison having done nothing to improve them. So the Minister must know it is not just about how many prisoners are asleep in one cell.

He also tells us that he is taking urgent steps to provide more prison places to meet the rising need. So on the one hand we do not have a problem and on the other hand we are preparing ourselves to cope with that problem. And it is a rising need that he seems to be proud of. A rising need because we are locking more people up and that is what the public want. His Government’s policies are causing the problem. It would appear that the huge prison population is a badge of success.

The answer should not be about locking up more and more people in an effort to woo voters. The answer is a brave political move that is beyond our craven, power hungry ambitious politicians of today.

Recently I represented a man of good character who had a job. He was involved in a theft that stole £4,000. Everything about it told you it was a one-off in his life. He was sent to immediate custody for 32 weeks. There is nothing wrong with the sentence per se. Other than it is pointless. He was let out 8 weeks in to his sentence. on a home detention curfew. Using the average figures that imprisonment costs the taxpayer, that little stay cost the State £7,000. The tag is going to cost a further £1,000. And he lost his job. So will now be claiming benefits.

He has to be let out that early because the system recognises he poses no threat and they needed his place for someone else. Had he not gone to prison he would have cost us less to punish. Meanwhile he could have repaid some of the money stolen and the some of the cost of prosecuting him. The Government want the headline that someone who steals £4,000 goes to custody. They just have not got the resources to lock someone up for that length of time. And they know, in their heart of hearts, that it achieves nothing.

So the Minister should not be spouting off about what the public wants. He should not be pretending the prison estate does not have a problem. He should be ensuring that useless, expensive, pointless short sentences for people of previous good character who pose no threat to the public are a thing of the past. But that is not a headline he likes. Sense will take a back seat to image.

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