Open Forum: Prison overcrowding

The “prison works” argument is only fuelling ever increasing overcrowding, writes David Ramsbotham

Once again the problem of prison overcrowding has been raised. Those who press for the building of yet more prisons are ranged against those who argue that our prisons are overcrowded with too many people who should not be there.

Unfortunately, imprisonment has become a party political issue. The date of this change can be dated almost precisely – Michael Howard’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference in 1993, in which he claimed that “prison works”. Of course prison works, to the extent that those confined cannot commit crimes on the public. But prison clearly does not work if 60 per cent of adults, 70 per cent of young offenders and 80 per cent of juveniles reoffend within two years of release.

The present overcrowded prison estate presents the worst of all worlds to the public.

First, the numbers are swamping the limited resources that prisons have to provide prisoners with suitable activities.

Second, overcrowding in one prison means that many prisoners are sent to establishments far away from their homes, undermining any hope of providing treatment for successful resettlement.

So what is the answer? Prisons should not be required to cater for people with mental illnesses, asylum seekers, children and people who have not committed serious crimes that require them to be isolated from society. These people should be subject to other arrangements, more suitable to their offence or condition.

Unless we get away from short-term answers to a long-term problem, I fear that we will go on hearing the same old arguments being produced. A long-term solution requires the bringing together of all those involved, and not just yet another Home Office initiative. It is high time that this solution, which has been ducked by our leaders for far too long, is actioned. If it is not it is we – the public – who will be the losers.

Lord Ramsbotham was formerly the chief inspector of prisons

Additional reading
The plight of older prisoners

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