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.