Wednesday, 21 December 2016

It Is Time For A Fresh Approach

Britain’s leading Trotskyist newspaper, the Financial Times, editorialises:

The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in 1862.

The Russian writer’s words apply directly to the UK, with its overcrowded and increasingly violent prisons.

The spate of riots in institutions across the country suggests that the custodial system is close to meltdown.

Over the past 25 years, the UK’s prison population has exploded, doubling to more than 85,000 inmates.

Yet staffing has been cut drastically and budgets have failed to keep pace, especially during the era of austerity after the financial crisis.

The introduction of private sector-run prisons has not proved a panacea.

The riot at HMP Birmingham on Friday highlights how the authorities have lost control of their prisons.

The disturbance, which spread across four wings of the dilapidated Victorian-era prison and involved 260 prisoners, took 12 hours to end.

A team of “Tornado” prison guards, specially trained to deal with riots, had to be brought in to regain stability.

More than 300 inmates have been moved out of the prison as a result of the damage.

The incident follows a violent outbreak at a prison in Bedford and a six-hour rampage at another in Lewes East Sussex.

These three events have one thing in common, according to the National Council of Independent Monitoring Boards: staffing shortages.

Over the past five years, the number of prison officers in the UK has been cut by 31 per cent.

The result is that prisoners are being kept in their cells for up to 23 hours a day — a recipe for boredom, frustration and violent conduct.

Liz Truss, the justice secretary, has acknowledged that the dire state of Britain’s prisons is a longstanding problem which will not be solved in a matter of weeks or months.

Her response has been to unveil a major investment programme, delivering 2,500 extra prison officers, greater autonomy for prison governors and tougher drug checks (a reflection of how prisoners have compromised security in many prisons).

These reforms are welcome, particularly the much-needed recruitment drive.

Unless the government wishes to embark on a significant prison building programme — bear in mind that it is to date seeking planning permission for two new prisons only — something drastic must be done.

The answer is a reduction in the prison population.

This may be anathema to law-and-order Conservatives, but Michael Gove, the former justice secretary, has set out a blueprint for reform.

In a recent lecture, he said:

“Overcrowded prisons are more likely to be academies of crime, brutalisers of the innocent and incubators of addiction rather than engines of self-improvement.”

For too long, successive British governments have focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation in prison.

Ever since Michael Howard, the hardline former Tory home secretary, declared in 1993 that “prison works”, sentences have been more severe and conditions have deteriorated.

Mr Gove correctly observed that prisons should focus on detaining the most dangerous criminals.

The protection of the public should count far more than the misguided clamour for heavier custodial sentences.

If prisoners demonstrate good conduct and self-improvement in prison there is no reason why the nature and length of their sentence could not be commuted in the public interest.

The state of British prisons today is intolerable. It is time for a fresh approach.

Ms Truss must show she is up to the job.

Without action, the prisons and the public will be condemned to further cycles of violence.

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