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Wednesday, October 11, 2006 

A crisis entirely of their own making.

Connaught barracks.

Pity poor John Reid. Selected by a Newsnight focus group as the best man to challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership, buoyed by making what was seen by the Scum as an impressive speech to the Labour conference, and brought into the public's living rooms by the alleged liquid explosives terror plot, things were looking up and up. Like a stroppy teenager, he must now be thinking that it's just so unfair that the prisons overcrowding crisis just had to come along and bite him up the arse.

The current prison population stands at 79,819 (or at least it did on Monday), which is around 300 places off full capacity. Step forward Reid, announcing that "Operation Safeguard" (the Home Office sure can pick some corny names) is coming into operation. Police cells, which cost the taxpayer around £350 per prisoner per night, will be used to house low risk "lags". Connaught Barracks, as previously highlighted by this blog, is to be converted by December into an open prison, completely ignoring the reservations of the local people who are rather concerned and unhappy that the government hadn't bothered to consult them about it. Still, no doubt they'll come round to the view of Rebekah Wade, which is that it's "common sense". Most controversially, Reid stated that foreign prisoners, of which there are around 8,000 in British jails, will be given "support" up to the equivalent of £2,500 to enable them to go home. Cue the Express screaming on its front page that we're now giving dirty foreigners money to go home, which we're not. Other newspapers have taken the line that it's a bribe, which is closer to the truth, but since when did a bribe involve education or assistance with starting a business?

Did John Reid have the honesty to admit that the government's complete sycophancy towards the tabloids is the reason why the prisons are now full to bursting? Of course he didn't. Instead, while mentioning that judges are making full use of "indeterminate" sentences introduced in the 2003 Criminal Justice Bill, (of which, according to the NOMS statistics for August, there are already an incredible 7,628 now facing the possibility of facing the rest of their life in prison) the dastardly briefs have been less keen on the emphasis put on community punishments and tagging in the same laws. That it's been well documented that when politicians and the media are concentrating on draconian punishments, whether for serious offenders or not, judges tend to opt for more punitive sentences doesn't warrant a mention. Then again, this is the same John Reid which effectively handed over the keys to the Home Office to Rebekah Wade, like a rabbit caught in the headlights of the Sun's full fury.

Reid's comments on community punishments were pure window-dressing. There is to be no rethinking of the current orthodoxy regarding crime and punishment; how could there be when the slightest squeak from judges or prison reform groups that all we're doing is perpetuating a vicious cycle of reoffending is met by screams of outrage from the media which New Labour has done so much to court? The failing starts early, in the education system, where half of children leave school without the qualifications necessary for life. Rehabilitation in prison itself is impossible when they are so over-stretched; research from the Prison Reform Trust concluded that re-offending upon release increases by 10% in the currently full to bursting jails. Even if the government did own up to the fact that the current situation cannot continue, it's stuck in the bind of being unable to fund two major criminal justice programs at once. Prison building inevitably gets the cash.

What needs to happen is a complete step change in thinking. We have to admit that locking up over 80,000 men and women is not making us any safer in the long term. It removes the most dangerous from society for good, but leaves us with the vast majority no better off, or indeed, actually made worse from their time inside. Why can the £37,000 need to lock a person up be put to a far better use? No one is suggesting that violent offenders should not be locked up for own safety, far from it. If anything, those convicted of those crimes still get off too lightly. The two boys who killed Damilola Taylor were sentenced to just eight years in prison, even if there were extenuating circumstances regarding the case, with them being tried for manslaughter rather than murder. They should have received at the very least 12 years in custody for such a heinous and shocking act of inhumanity. Our system for dealing with drug offences, those addicted to substances, the mentally ill and the vast majority of women prisoners should reflect the fact that their crimes are less serious. Community punishment does not just need to be that; while to appease the tabloids it needs to have a harsh element, rehabilitation should still be the key. The scheme set-up to help foreign prisoners leave is exactly the sort of thing that should be available to them.

Instead, what we're faced with a system that by current trends will be holding 100,000 men and women by the time of the next election, although God knows how. The statement that a society can be judged by the way it treats those it imprisons is still very apt. At the moment, we're completely guilty of throwing away the key and forgetting about those locked up. A truly honest and radical government would recognise this. It may hurt to begin with, but society can only gain from such optimism. At the moment, the cynicism and pessimism which surrounds the criminal justice system is a harsh reflection on us all.

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One has to question exactly how much of a 'crisis' this is. Yes, the prison are close to full, but while 50 people are sent to prison a day, another 50 finish their sentences and leave prison. The government's task should be to ensure that today's leavers do not return tomorrow. But, as you've said, this will be impossible until the government stops pandering to the tabloid agenda.
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