Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor, has announced a two-year
freeze on all public service expenditure except health and
education should the Conservatives win the next general election.
Among the many questions this provokes is one that Labour also
needs to address, a week after the prison population reached an
all-time high with 75,543 locked up.
If we have a Tory freeze and a Labour squeeze on budgets, how is
either party going to pay for all the extra prisons this country is
going to need, since it is determined to maintain its abysmal
reputation as a leader of the “lock ’em up” league of
Justice and compassion are not deemed sufficient reasons for
politicians to overhaul penal policy. But perhaps, on remand at
least, change will come because there will be no alternative. On
some projections, the prison population could reach 87,200 in 2006
– 9,500 more than the number of places expected to be available at
that time. A sharp reduction in remand prisoners would help to ease
the pressure – and could provide an opportunity to make a
constructive difference to individual lives.
Six out of 10 women on remand are given non-custodial sentences or
acquitted. Eight out of 10 are charged with non-violent offences.
On average, they will spend 37 days in jail, often in conditions
worse than those experienced by a convicted prisoner. Many have
children. A remand prisoner commits suicide nearly every 10
Surely, in the 21st century, an affluent society such as this can
devise a network of small bail hostels and enough detoxification
and psychiatric units to keep women and men out of jail?
The Prison Reform Trust, on its excellent website, is asking the
public to write to MPs to lobby for change in the remand system.
Fifty thousand people were locked up on remand last year, innocent
until proven guilty. Some have to stay inside to stop them
committing crime or harming others. Still, a well designed system
should enable most to be let out on bail with a minimal chance of
re-offending or disappearing before a court appearance – while
offering a genuine opportunity to turn a life around.
Instead, the penal system is colonising vast areas of social
However well intentioned some prison officers are, they are not
psychiatrists, doctors, social workers or detox specialists. Jails
should be a last resort for the guilty – not homes for those whom
circumstances have left a little flawed.