Prison policy should cut crime not costs

The announcement in the pre-Budget report that savings of £360 million will be sought by “outsourcing inefficient prisons” is symptomatic of the Government’s increasingly reactionary and haphazard approach to prison policy.

The announcement in the pre-Budget report that savings of £360 million will be sought by “outsourcing inefficient prisons” is symptomatic of the Government’s increasingly reactionary and haphazard approach to prison policy.

I’ve visited almost 30 prisons throughout England and Wales in the last six months, and I’m under no illusion as to how severe the problems in our system are. That’s why I can’t understand why the Government sees the solution as outsourcing prisons to the private sector. Not only are there profound ethical questions posed by operating penal institutions for profit, but there are also very practical considerations to be taken into account if the Government’s motivation is saving money. How exactly will the private companies contracted to run prisons save money i.e. what will they cut?

It’s a particularly important question because the overwhelming majority of people in prison are from disadvantaged, dysfunctional and sometimes horrendous backgrounds. Many of them have been in local authority care (over 25 per cent of male prisoners and 30 per cent of female prisoners), have profound educational difficulties (around 50 per cent have poor reading skills, 80 per cent writing skills below level 1), are alcohol/drug-dependent (over 40 per cent of male prisoners were drug-dependent on arrival in prison) and have significant mental health issues (over 80 per cent of women prisoners). These people need high-quality services and support that costs money. If they don’t get that then they are released unprepared and unreformed, with the inevitable consequence that they will re-offend. That creates more crime and more victims of crime, and simply leads to a cycle of offending from which there is no escape.

It is difficult and it will take courage to start a debate about this, given a very hostile media and political class uninterested in the issue beyond a punitive desire to be ‘tough on crime’. I know that it’s a complex debate; one that I have with myself nearly every day. Everyone – me included – has their own emotional reactions to crime, criminals and the victims they create. That’s important. It’s important too, though, that politicians and policy-makers go beyond that reaction and make policy based on what’s best for our society as a whole. We can’t ignore the fact that people in prison and their families, as well as ex-offenders, are part of society too and they need to be included in that process.

The most damning indictment of our criminal justice system is that it is easier to get into than to get out of.  The progressive left has a duty to engage in a real debate about what – beyond the law – should govern our responses and policies towards prison and prisoners. We need to challenge the basic reactionary ignorance that many in British politics, media and wider society have about prisons and criminal justice. If we fail to do so then we are abandoning 80,000 of our fellow citizens, and helping to perpetuate a system that entrenches inequality and does nothing to stop the cycle of re-offending.

Conor McGinn is the Manager of the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas, an organisation that works with offenders and their families. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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9 Responses to “Prison policy should cut crime not costs”

  1. Conor McGinn

    RT @leftfootfwd Prison policy should cut crime not costs: @conormcginn

  2. TheHowardLeague

    RT @conormcginn: RT @leftfootfwd Prison policy should cut crime not costs: @conormcginn

  3. nic groombridge

    RT @conormcginn: RT @leftfootfwd Prison policy should cut crime not costs: @conormcginn

  4. Anon E Mouse

    Perhaps if this government wasn’t so keen to legislate at the drop of a hat there would be less crimes and less people charged with breaking them…

  5. k4thybrown

    RT @leftfootfwd: Prison policy should cut crime not costs: < Yepsy

  6. Jenni Jackson

    RT @leftfootfwd The ultimate obscenity – privatising our prisons:

  7. Kris Jones

    I think the fundamental problem with our criminal justice policy is that we are too ready to lock people up. Back in 1992 before Michael Howard started his “prison works” policy there were less than 43,000 prisoners. Now the figure has almost doubled, without making any real dent on crime or fear of crime. Imprisoning many first offenders tends to provide them with an apprenticeship in how to commit crime and only serves as confirmation of a criminal career. Unfortunately when Labour were elected, instead of challenging “prison works” they pandered to the right-wing press and decided to continue with it. If the prisons budget needs cutting the best approach is to curtail the use of custodial sentences and instead promote community-based sentencing and rehabilitation. Of course, there will always be rent-a-mouth MPs and journalists that will condemn such a policy, but it is worth grasping the nettle and promoting alternatives to custody as better for society overall.

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