The prison system: a reflection of society

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10 October 2006

The appalling overcrowding in British jails is old news. So, what prompted John Reid to "tackle" it all of a sudden? Quite simply, the fear of appearing "soft on crime". This would have been bad for this self-styled "tough new guy on the block" and his hopes to slip into Blair's shoes!

Rather than taking the risk of generating a tabloid campaign against the early release of minor offenders - the usual way for the system to deal with its crises - Reid plans "selective transfers" to "open" prisons and police cells. In a new bid to woo xenophobic prejudices, he also floated the idea of deporting "foreign" prisoners. Never mind that in addition to inflicting a second sentence on foreign offenders, this would be likely to attract retaliatory measures from other countries. And there may well be far more British prisoners in other parts of the world than the 10,000 foreigners in British jails!

The prison population increased by 32% since Labour came to power. But Reid was careful not to mention the real cause for overcrowding.

Is it due to increased criminal activity? No. The number declared guilty by the courts remained the same. What has increased is only the number of prison sentences and their length - including for the most petty offences. So Britain's prison population is now Europe's largest!

Has this sentencing frenzy reduced crime in Britain? No. Nor is there any indication that such methods have ever worked anywhere. The US model, the best thing since sliced bread according to Blair and Reid, proves the opposite: the US has the world's largest prison population in relative terms and one of the highest criminality rates.

If prisons are so overcrowded, it is thanks to the demagogical calls for more prison sentences made by ministers like Reid. If over 5% of prisoners are mentally ill or disabled, it is because so many NHS mental hospitals have been closed down. If more drug addicts come out of jail than go into them - the main cause behind re-offending - it is because there is no funding for drug clinics, inside or outside jails.

The prison system is but a faithful reflection of society - a society in which the share of the majority is being increasingly eroded by the rich and powerful minority for its own benefit.