Saturday, 27 June 2009

Titans Scrapped, But Large Prisons Still in Pipeline

An edited version of this article was published in last weeks edition of the Socialist.

The government’s flagship programme for increasing the prison population, 3 2,500 capacity Titan prisons have been scrapped and instead are to be replaced by 5 smaller 1,500 place prisons. These prisons will still be bigger than all but one of the currently existing prisons existing at the present in the UK. As government finances become tightened due to the impact of the recession, combined with the massive barrage of criticism they faced over the issue of ‘warehousing’ prisoners, the governments plan is to build 2 of the 5 immediately whilst leaving the other three prisons hanging in the area with the possibility of being scrapped.
More over, these new prisons will be privately built and run – proving that Straw and New Labour have learnt nothing from the disaster of PFI and privatisation of prisons and other public sector institutions over the past decade or so.
Yet a report in The Times (6 April) says that even before these new prisons are built twenty UK prisons already hold over 1,000 prisoners each. Colossal sums of money have been spent on prison building in the last few years.
This includes £430 million to create over 4,000 extra prison places and £2.3 billion to be spent by 2014 to create 20,000 new places including the five new 1,500 capacity jails as well as eight new prisons with a combined capacity of 5,400 alongside expansions of existing facilities.
However, the government constantly says that crime as a whole is falling and official figures back this up. So why does the prison population keep increasing, reaching a new record of 83,810 last August?
Certainly the nearly 5,000 prisoners serving (up to January 2009) indeterminate sentences for public protection have increased the figure. This is just one of many new sentences and criminal offences that the government has created over the last few years. Average sentence lengths have been creeping up over the last decade too.
But magistrates are pushing for even greater powers, doubling the length of prison sentence they can hand out up to 12 months. They claim they can deal with 18,000 more cases a year making huge savings for the Courts Service (the average cost of a crown court trial is £18,000 compared to £1,800 for a magistrates’ court trial).
The cases at present can be tried ‘either way’, by a magistrate or judge and jury – so this potentially could restrict such cases to magistrates courts only, removing the right to a jury trial. But should these unelected judges be given more powers?
As we have outlined in The Socialist before, only socialist measures using democratic methods to reduce the prison population and tackling the social issues at the root of crime as well as providing serious rehabilitation for prisoners can overcome the crisis.


Denzil said...

A factor, in the rising prison population, that needs to be considered is the closure of Psychiatric Asylums in Britain and the USA.

Appartently, more than 10% of the prison population are considered to be mentally ill.

Many people who would have been cared for in Asylums, now end up on the streets or in prisons.

Brian Caton, leader of the POA, made some interesting comments in the Morning Star, 3 Feb. 2009: The former psychiatric nurse related how the Tories' "care in the community" policies had "led to a huge reduction in mental health beds, the closure of psychiatric units and the easily foreseen and inevitable rise in the number of mentally ill offenders in prison.

The closure of the Asylums was ostensible done so that 'care in the community' could be introduced. However, this justification was announced after the first closures had commenced: so the real reason was almost certainly financial.

The re-offending rate of prisoners is very high, but if people's mental health problems can be effectively treated, then their chances of a normal life are much greater.

Bertie Humbug's Ranto-O-Matic said...

Lets deal with the here and now. Labour have massively screwed up with respect to Prisons. People who deserve to go to prison don't, people who do get sent down often don't get enough time and those who should be inside are let out. This is Labour's fault. All they can do is screw things up and try to decieve.

One thing an incoming government will have to do is provide more space - for the sake of justice and for the sake of public protection.

My preference for crime reduction strategy is for early intervention with a lot more support being made available to families, especially psychological support. But I think its very foolish to ever forget that crime involves someone making an immoral decision of their own free volition and they have to answer for that. This whole thing of painting the criminal as a victim often goes way too far.

However to echo Denzils maybe the wholesale closure of the asylums was a bad move. People with serious mental health problems shouldnt end up in the criminal justice system by default because theres no where else for them to go. The streets are very unforgiving.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

@ Bertie

I disagree with you on prison sentence length at the very least from your opening paragraph, if not other parts of it. I think that many of the increases in prison sentences over the last decade have had little beneficial effect at the expense of creating a massive overcrowding headache within the prison population.

Also, your comment "But I think its very foolish to ever forget that crime involves someone making an immoral decision of their own free volition and they have to answer for that. This whole thing of painting the criminal as a victim often goes way too far"

Does it? Is every thing that is a crime immoral - I have to disagree with you here again. There are many things that have been criminalised which quite a few people would not consider immoral and even of the immoral acts, many some may be considered as trvial. This is why I believe the criminal justice system needs to be democratised so we can have a rational may of dealing with things which are considered by an overwhelming majority of the population as a serious crime that needs dealing with properly. However, I do not intend to paint those who have committed acts that the majority of us would consider as wrong as the victims, although I would point out that in many cases there may be factors other than volition that have led them to commit crimes and these would need to be dealt with in whatever way we can.

@ Denzil

I agree with you about asylums and hopefully I will get around to doing a substantive post on the subject. I belive the figure for those with mental illnesses in British prisons is actually much higher than you suggest though.

Denzil said...

I agree with your assessment that more than 10% of prisoners suffer from mental illness.

What I originally intended to write - but didn't for some unknown reason - was that more than 10% of the prison population are considered to be suffering from severe mental illness: which of course would include psychosis, schizophrenia, personality disorders and problems that lead to self-medication(drug and alcohol addiction).

Other forms of mental illness would, presumeably, be very widespread amongst those in prisons. Also, I've noticed amongst the ex-prisoners, that I've encountered, that low self-esteem is very often evident, along with low thresh-holds for anger.