Friday, 18 January 2008

Prisons: Lumbering Into Further Crisis

In December, the government’s latest review of prisons was published. Chaired by Lord Carter, one of the reviews main features is a call for three ‘Titan’ jails holding 2,500 prisoners each as part of a massive prison building programme.
The prison building programme comes as a response to the projected rise in the prison population to about 96,000 in 2014. The system is at present full to the point of bursting with most prisons being overcrowded and the ‘temporary’ measure of using police cells to hold prisoners under Operation Safeguard still in effect over a year later.
Earlier this year Jack Straw had declared that he wouldn’t build his way out of the current prisons crisis, but alongside the ‘Titans’ are plans to convert army camps and even a prison ship. However, this won’t solve the crisis, all previous major prison building programmes have done is create extra-capacity that is soon filled creating a new prison crisis further down the line.
According to the Prisons Minister, David Hanson in a recent Society Guardian interview (12/12/07), this prison building programme is different, many older prisons are ‘not fit for purpose’ and need to be decommissioned and replaced. It is undoubtedly true that many prisons have poor facilities, particularly some of the older Victorian prisons, but one of the main reasons that they haven’t been decommissioned before now is because the government are trying to cram as many people into the current system as possible, in some places cells built for one prisoner are now accommodating two or even three.

Titans – Giant Warehouses of People

The three proposed Titans were originally announced to cost £1.2bn, but this turned out to be just extra funding on top of the already announced £1.5bn prison building programme that the government had already committed to. It is unknown what these behemoths will cost in the end, but it will similarly be in the £billions. Already Carter has argued that there should be an extra titan built in London too.
The main reasons for building such large prisons is that there will be economies of scale savings, as well as being able to get planning permission more easily due to the recent passed legislation on this issue that allows major developments to bypass local democracy. Carter also argues that such massive prisons will allow prisoners to be held closer to home, but surely this would be provided better by smaller, more local prisons? A further blow to the proposals came from the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, who testified before the Commons justice committee that all the evidence shows that smaller prisons do better than larger ones (ie less overcrowded etc.) and also pointed out that in France building titans had been halted after the population of the first one, built in Paris in 1992 to hold 2,800, had swollen to 3,600. Big prisons mean a larger prison population and prison overcrowding are here to stay. It should also be of no surprise to socialists that the titans are likely to be PFI projects, yet more £billions into the coffers of big business.

Mental Health

As pointed out by Prison Officers Association General Secretary, Brian Caton, at Socialism 2007, mental health problems is a serious issue in prisons. More 70% of prisoners (both male and female) suffer from two or more mental health disorders and around 5,000 prisoners suffer from severe and enduring mental illness. As Caton commented in an interview in the Socialist (issue 461) “So many people who have mental health difficulties… will find themselves in the criminal justice system. There is nowhere else for them to go.”
As the Socialist has reported, cuts in NHS services are being carried out up and down the country, mental health services being one of the most effected area; the recent victimisation of Karen Reissman for speaking out against mental health cuts merely highlights this. Even before this latest round of cuts, mental health services were under-funded and under-resourced. An end to health cuts is desperately needed, because as Caton also stated in the interview “Until we tackle the mental health difficulties and underlying problems of crime in our society, we will not move anywhere.”

Attacks on prisoners and prison workers

The Guardian (6/12/07) reported that one of the recommendations of the Carter report was “the urgent modernisation of the prison service workforce”. This undoubtedly means cuts and a further stretching of already overstretched staff. Prison Officers have already taken their first national strike in 2007 on pay, but one of the main issues strikers raised was that of conditions. These are set to worsen as the Guardian also reported (13/12/07) that the government is planning to keep inmates locked up for an extra half a day a week, which means cancelling classes and workshops on Friday afternoons and means that prisoners will be spending 23 hours a day in cells from Friday afternoons to Monday mornings. All to extract around £60m in efficiency savings, when the government was giving strike breakers during the POA national strike bonuses of £500 each. These policies show that any talk of trying to do something serious to tackle crime is just spin, and as always the burden of crime and offending will be left upon the working class

For a Socialist Policy to Tackle Crime

Clearly prisons are understaffed at present, any more prisons will simply increase this and result in prisoners being locked up for even longer than these current proposals. Socialists stand against locking even more people up unnecessarily, and oppose the building of ‘titans’ and increasing the prison population. We also stand for the replacement of older prisons so prisoners and staff can facilities fitting for the 21st century. But the main way to do this is not building out of the crisis, but renationalising privatised prisons and vastly reducing the current overcrowded population. Such a stand would also reduce understaffing at the same time as well as freeing up resources for better mental health services for those convicted of crime whether inside or outside prison.
But this isn’t the main solution to the problem of crime. For socialists, the root cause of crime is the alienation, deprivation and other effects of an oppressive capitalist society. Only a programme to tackle these by giving well-paid jobs and training for all with housing and other essentials, such as a quality public health service, will alleviate these ills of society. It is a socialist transformation of society will allow us to attack these real roots of crime.


Jim Jay said...

I think there are three key things

i) keeping people out of crime
ii) treating them (and the victims, if any) fairly
iii) rehabilitation

In essence before, during and after. Socialists have generally been pretty good at addressing the first one (ie transforming society to reduce crime) but have tended to pay less attention to the second two - possibly because they didn't want to be part of the bang em up brigade.

Personally I trhink that's been taken a bit far. In my view a socialist society *would* have jails (and not just for the rich) but it's how people get there and what happens once they are in that need to be questioned.

Sorry this is a bit rushed - hope it's not garbled

Leftwing Criminologist said...

as i may have mentioned before, i'v eposted before about the prison crisis. I too think that prisons will need to exist in a socialist society (although probably not in a communist society) I'll blog about the state and revolution and it's relevance to the criminal justice system.

for the time being look in my blog post archive for a post called prisons it's got the basics of what i think is necessary at the end of it