For well over 200 years, imprisonment has been one of society’s preferred punishments. But is it effective? Well, that depends on the goal.
It was once a priority that punishments be “humane.” That priority underpinned punishment’s move toward imprisonment and away from torture, the death penalty and other grueling alternatives. But pinning punishment to humanity necessitates no more than the deprivation of one’s liberty. That limiting principle obtains in some Scandinavian prisons, where highly effective “open prisons” replicate life outside prison as much as possible. Yet elsewhere, underpaid labour, infantilization from prison officers, and solitary confinement far exceed that limiting principle and result in making prisoners suffer. Our appetite for prisons transgresses that limiting principle in their widespread use, too: Imprisonment is already an expensive last resort to fines and community sentences, costing upwards of 40,000 per prison place each year.
However, if the goal of imprisonment really is reform, re-education and reinsertion into mainstream society, it is – to put it bluntly – not doing a good job. Of those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody, 63% will reoffend within a year of release. Compare this to Norway’s reoffending rate of just 20%, and it is difficult to argue that the taxpayer in England & Wales is getting good bang for the buck. Given the disparity, it is astonishing that the Conservative party’s allegedly pragmatic penal policy is to create more prison places: 10,000 more places were pledged in the 2019 election, since raised to 18,000.
Similar countries to the UK are veering away from the traditional prison system as a punishment. France’s increased use of electromagnetic (EM) technology and house arrest is not only more effective (29.8% of those sentenced to EM are reconvicted and sent to prison, compared to 55% of ex-prisoners – although this may be skewed by selection bias, as only “desirable” prisoners who fit several quota are chosen) but also a tenfold cheaper alternative.
And, although re-education has become a part of the political consensus, 3/5 of prisoners still leave prison with no identifiable employment, education or training outcome, making recidivism not only likely, but understandable. Even if re-education programs are effective, greater acts of reform seem logical; the environment found in traditional prisons is not conducive to reinsertion into society (socialising with other convicts, feeling alienated etc.).
What, then, should imprisonment’s role be in a sane and effective penal policy?
Criminologists Freda and Frank Adler found that the distinction between countries with higher and lower prison populations often comes down to their approach to crime. Those with higher rates, they said, were “nations obsessed with crime”; nations so caught up in the moral panic surrounding crime that they cannot think about “non-crime”, that which makes people choose not to offend.
By this definition, the UK is a nation obsessed with crime. Nearly 13% of British newspapers’ event–oriented reports are based on crime, and 64.5% of these are about personal violence crimes, contrasting the mere 6% of real-life crimes that these represent. As a result, the electorate fears personal violence crimes, and harbours a widespread-yet-mistaken public belief that crime is worsening and proliferating.
In a climate where 70% of British people believe that court sentences are insufficiently severe, major parties would struggle to implement significant penal reform. So, it makes sense that our major parties want to seem “tough on crime.”
Labour policy has begun to support investment in proven alternatives to custodial sentences. In 2019, a Commons Select Committee concluded that the UK was in the midst of a “prisons crisis.” In reaction, the committee called the Government’s approach “inefficient, ineffective and unsustainable”, and supported the abolition of sentences lasting less than 6 months. This policy seems to be a no-brainer.
But changing the public’s opinion is a steeper challenge. In 2007, Ryan and Ward described prison as commanding an unquestionable “hegemonic status” in the UK. That status protects the sensibility that imprisonment is wholly practical, and that critiques about imprisonment’s ineffectiveness are dismissed as the preserve of naive, far-left idealists.
As it always does, public opinion will continue to hold its weight. Social change is slow and, although protests in UK prisons such as HMP Whitemoor and Winchester can stir conversations, the Government is unlikely to listen to a prison population that still, controversially, is unable to vote. As a result, organisations like the Prison Reform Trust that are working to combat misinformation about custodial sentences are likely those most likely to bring about a new common sense with regard to prisons.