26 July 2007
The prison system is not fit for purpose. Failing both prisoners and society, it neither deters nor rehabilitates. Overcrowding, poor welfare provision, victimisation and reoffending are rife. Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, discusses with Peter Tatchell what’s wrong with the prison service and how to fix it.
Peter Tatchell writes:
There are record numbers of prisoners in our jails. We imprison a higher proportion of the population than most comparable western nations, yet our crime rate is often higher. Prison isn’t working.
Many prisoners are incarcerated in squalid conditions – including antiquated, insanitary Victorian jail wings – that have been condemned as unfit by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons.
We have an unacceptably high reoffending rate; ranging up to 70% for some categories of young prisoners. This is clear evidence that prison does not rehabilitate. It is a failure. Too many young men enter prison as petty offenders and leave as hardened criminals, destined for a cycle of repeat offending and imprisonment.
Overcrowding puts a huge strain on prison staff and services. With too many prisoners and too few resources, many prisons cannot meet the medical, educational and welfare needs of their inmates. This contributes to tension and conflict. It means that many prisons are not providing effective rehabilitation programmes. Without completing these programmes, prisoners cannot get recategorisation or parole – an injustice that fuels their rage against society and increases their likelihood of reoffending.
More than half of all prisoners have mental health problems. Yet few get appropriate, effective treatment. Many should not be in prison at all. They need medical help. But they rarely get it.
A high proportion of prisoners are illiterate or semi-literate, which makes it difficult for them to complete offending behaviour management programmes. Foreign prisoners who are unable speak English are at a huge disadvantage. They cannot articulate their needs and cannot complete the necessary prison courses.
There are hundreds – possibly up to 2,000 – innocent prisoners in our jails. All victims of miscarriages of justice. Failed by the magistrates and crown courts, the Appeal Court and the Criminal Cases Review Commission, some are serving ten or more years for crimes they never committed.
There are no adequate checks and balances to protect prisoners against abuse and victimisation by prison staff. Homophobia, racism and Islamophobia are rampant in many – not all – jails. Muslim prisoners are particularly prone to harassment and to false allegations of terrorist sympathies. Once labelled a security risk, they suffer diminished opportunities for earned privileges such as special education courses, extra visitor passes, access to prison computers, transfer to open prisons and day release for external study and work experience in preparation for their return to civilian life at the end of their sentence. For all inmates, these earned privileges sometimes appear to be given or denied at the whim and fancy of staff officers.
Prison security departments have huge power to influence a prisoner’s fate; including decisions like parole, recategorisation, access to courses and release on temporary licence. But prison security officers are a law unto themselves, with no proper scrutiny, transparency or accountability.
Likewise, the Independent Monitoring Boards vary in their independence. Some tend to rubber stamp prisoner governor’s decisions and explanations. The same goes for the Prison and Probation Ombudsman. All too often the Ombudsman ignores evidence of abuse and sides with prison chiefs and the Home Office.
The prison service is a shambles. It needs urgent reform to ensure that inmates are treated fairly, encouraged and facilitated to reform, and that they leave prison with the best possible help to lead a productive, law-abiding life.
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