No room for rehab

During the week ending 11 July 2003, 213 people were imprisoned,
bringing the inmate population in England and Wales to an all-time
high of 74,012. The number of female prisoners, 4,597 is a record
in its own right.1
The Times reported on 12
July that only 400 prison places remain; by the end of the month,
police cells nationwide will be backing up with the overflow.
Weight of numbers has reduced the penal strategy to

Up to the mid-1800s, the prison population was kept in check by the
twin evils of execution and transportation. In the 18th century, a
succession of increasingly draconian laws added many and relatively
minor felonies to the list of capital offences. Transportation was
legalised in 1719 and was used for the next 100 years. Capital
punishment for murder, although not for treason or piracy, was
abolished only in 1965.

The cessation of transportations, in particular, created a pressing
need for increased accommodation. The “model prison” at
Pentonville, built in 1842, is, like many others from the period,
still in use. These buildings, designed as repressive instruments
of deterrence, do not lend themselves to rehabilitating inmates:
that they have yet to be replaced is a sorry comment on our
commitment to reform and prisoner welfare. Similarly, prison
overcrowding is not a recent issue but has been a growing problem
since the 1930s.

An offender is imprisoned as punishment, not for punishment: loss
of liberty is the actual penalty, but that loss is not defined by,
or limited to, disenfranchisement, minimal personal space, locked
doors and high walls topped by razor wire. It entails an almost
total loss of self-determination, privacy, dignity, family and
social contact, and greatly diminished personal safety and

Civilisation rests on the finest of balances, and conditions in
many prisons tip the balance the other way. In the dog-eat-dog
world behind bars, violence and intimidation are the culture.
Terrible things – things that would cause outrage in the outside
world – happen as a matter of course. In my professional career, I
dealt with many ex-prisoners. Most of these men and women were
utterly degraded, too many had been brutalised, and none had
experienced any measure of rehabilitation.

In their own opinion, they were much worse on release than when
sentenced and, therefore, more likely to reoffend, and less likely
to care about the consequences for themselves or for others. It is
an acknowledged fact that imprisonment can, and does, turn petty
offenders into hardened criminals. Yet those on the receiving end
of penal policies are never asked their views for their persistent
failure. Prisoners are stripped of the right to vote, so they lose
the right to hold valid opinions. The set-in-stone official view is
that penal policies founder not on their own, inherent defects but
always on the incorrigibility of the offender.

To paraphrase the supermarket maxim of “pile them high, sell them
cheap”, our attitudes towards prisoners are on the lines of “pile
them in, treat them like dirt”. There is a nasty smell in prisons,
and it is the same smell, wherever one goes. Some call it “the
smell of despair” and perhaps unwashed bodies, dirty clothing, bad
food, overcrowding, poor sanitation, fear, vermin, damp buildings
and too much metal add up to just that.

The physical conditions of many UK prisons probably contravene the
requirements of human rights legislation and certainly, they play a
significant role in the psychological and physical deterioration
that seem inevitable with prisoners. Scant attention is paid to
prisoner health; resources are poor because they are dependent on
investment that, in turn, is dictated by attitudes.

Prisons are ideal breeding grounds for disease. HIV and
tuberculosis are already entrenched, and there is little to prevent
full-blown epidemics that will eventually threaten the wider
community. Mental health services are generally a disgrace, despite
the known fragile state of many inmates. Self-harm is commonplace,
suicide a frequent exit route, inmate-on-inmate murder a habitual

More than 100 years ago, Oscar Wilde in his poem The Ballad of
Reading Gaol
, commenting on the daily trudge round the
exercise yard, wrote of “that little tent of blue which prisoners
call the sky.”

In 21st century Britain, so poor is the warder-to-prisoner ratio
that many prisoners, locked up day and night, are denied even a
glimpse of that little tent of blue.

1 Prison Service statistics, week ending
11/07/03. Available at

Alison Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child care
worker and the winner of the 1996 Community Care Readers’

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