Sam Ashworth-Hayes

Britain’s prisons aren’t working

Britain's prisons aren't working
HMP Manchester (photo: Getty)
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Last April police officers found the bodies of two women, Mihrican Mustafa and Henriett Szucs, stored in Zahid Younis’s freezer. Before their murder Younis had served two jail sentences. The first came in 2005 after he married a 14-year-old in a Walthamstow mosque, got his child bride pregnant, and assaulted her. For this he was given 30 months. In 2008 he was jailed again for breaking the arm of a 17-year-old girl he was dating. For this he received nearly five years. Think carefully. Was there anything in his previous actions that suggested Younis might not become a safe and upstanding member of society?

How about Usman Khan? Khan was jailed in 2012 for a terror plot involving a string of bombs. His indefinite sentence ‘for public protection’, was altered by appeal judges, and he was released in December 2018. Then he murdered two people in last year’s London Bridge attack. Should he have been let out to finally follow through on his dream of killing innocent people?

Khan wasn’t the only person involved in the original terror plot to reoffend. Mohibur Rahman, one of the eight men sentenced alongside Khan in 2012, was sent to jail in 2017 for planning to carry out an attack in Birmingham. The other members of that plot included Naweed Ali and Khobaib Hussain, both of whom had previously been jailed for attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan. Ali had been sent back to jail twice after breaching a release licence condition banning him from associating with people deemed a security risk.

I could go on, but at this point you’re either with me in recognising that something is deeply amiss, or you would like some quantitative evidence. For the latter group, consider the following. Somewhere around 30 per cent of adults released from prison will reoffend within a year. Over a longer horizon, this rises substantially. From 2000 to 2009, roughly 75 per cent of those released from prison reoffended. In London, almost half of those charged with knife homicides last year had previous convictions for possessing a knife.

We are sometimes told that the problem with the legal system is that too many people are sent to jail. An alternative perspective is that it gives people altogether too many chances. Beyond a certain point, an excessive respect for the right of repeat offenders to take another shot at rehabilitation becomes a lack of respect for the safety of those in their vicinity.

The idea that a prison spell can turn a person into an upstanding citizen does not match observed reality. There is little reason to think that it would; in what world is a spell in prison supposed to undo the damage of a lifetime? Roughly half of those in prison in Britain may have suffered a traumatic brain injury. Many have learning disabilities, or an IQ low enough to qualify as ‘borderline’ learning disabled. Some 53,000 adults were receiving treatment for substance abuse issues in English prisons from 2017-2018 out of a total prison population of around 82,000. The proportion of prisoners with mental health conditions is unknown. It is estimated that half have ‘common mental disorders’ such as depression, PTSD, and anxiety. Somewhere around 15 per cent have specialist needs, and 2 per cent ‘acute and serious’ problems.

It is an uncomfortable observation that one of the most important factors in determining whether someone will reoffend is age. As men – and it is usually men – get older, they commit fewer crimes. Prison programmes aimed at rehabilitation and the tender ministrations of social workers are probably not of much use. As the former director general of the Prison Service, Sir Martin Narey, says: ‘the things we did to prisoners, the courses we put them on, the involvement of charities, made little or no difference.’

If rehabilitation and deterrence don’t work, then the purpose of prison reverts to maintaining the safety of the population. That means finding individuals who are unable to function within society and displaying an escalating tendency towards violence, and removing them from it. This would require a substantially better-funded prison service, with an emphasis on dignity, safety, and living life as normally as possible. The model here is Norway, which has one of the lowest rates of recidivism in the world, and where some prisons look more like a form of assisted living. It’s a long way from our current system, which combines the highest number of life sentences in Europe with considerably higher rates of reoffending. 

The Conservative party talks a good game on crime. Priti Patel in particular has introduced useful reforms targeting the early release of terrorist offenders, alongside the usual punchy manifesto comments on the need for stiffer sentences. At the same time, the party has now enjoyed ten consecutive years in government, including an extended period of austerity which significantly degraded conditions in prisons. If criminal justice reform is seriously on the cards, then it needs to think carefully about what prisons are for, and then fund them properly.