Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Prison - an expensive failure?

I’ll be heading to Birmingham this Friday for Green Party Autumn Conference, which, judging from the timetable, looks like it’s going to be a good one. I thought I’d blog about the panel on UK Prison Reform which I’ve been busy organising for quite a while!

The panel will take place on Friday 10th Sept at 6pm in the main hall. It will be chaired by Jean Lambert MEP and I am very excited about the panel I’ve lined up…

- Juliet Lyon CBE, Director of the Prison Reform Trust (and Commissioner for the Women’s National Commission (WNC)).

- Denise Marshall, coordinator of Birth Companions (an organisation who help pregnant prisoners and prisoners with babies).

- Joy Doal, coordinator of the Anawim Project in Birmingham (an organisation that supports sex workers and former women offenders).

- Rebecca Cunningham, a user of the Anawim Project.

Conference will also be considering a motion to adapt and augment our existing prison policy. I hope the policy is passed as it will add some important details to what is already a good, solid approach.

Particularly, I am keen to see points about women prisoners added to Green Party policy. Some facts on prisons I came across during the research for the motion and the panel discussion include:

- 17,000 children are deprived of their mothers annual when they are sent to jail (2004).

- Between 2005 and 2008, 283 babies were born in UK prisons. 8 mother and baby units in UK prisons – one is in Holloway.

- 12,000 women pass through the prison system every year. One third have a young child. (2010). 68% are in for non-violent offences, 56% have used drugs daily. Costs £27,000 per woman per year to keep them in prison (2004).

- A quarter have been in care as children, half have been beaten by their partners, 70% have been diagnosed with two or more mental disorders. (2004).

Little wonder, then, that there is an epidemic of suicide and self-harm in prisons – with the most likely time for a prisoner to attempt suicide being their first night in jail. Shockingly, six women on average have to be cut down from nooses every night in Holloway prison (2004). Women prisoners are more likely to self-harm than men (The Corston Report).

And of course there are less ‘dangerous criminal’ women than there are men - in 2007, it was reported that 1000 heroin-addicted women are jailed each year for selling sex. This begs the question, what is prison actually for? Protecting the law abiding? Enforcing normative moral codes? Or further damaging the life chances of the already seriously vulnerable and disadvantaged?

People ‘on remand’ are being imprisoned for long periods, and are not necessarily guilty of any crime. 12,000+ people in UK this applies to every year (2005). This raises some important civil liberties questions. ‘Remand’ is used incorrectly – e.g. to imprison people who actually need sectioning (according to The Howard League for Penal Reform). Two-thirds of the women who go to prison do so on remand and more than half of them do not go on to receive a custodial sentence, with one in five acquitted. (The Corston Report).

There are several steps that can be taken to improve the lot of those sentenced to a term in prison. Placing new prisoners in a separate wing, and talking them through the routine of prison life has been shown to be effective. ‘Buddy schemes’, where prisoners help each other, guided by The Samaritans, has also worked well (more so than help from professionals, apparently).

The problem we read about time and time again is overcrowding – we cannot rehabilitate prisoners if prisons are overcrowded. In 1993, our prisons contained 40,000: 47% ‘went straight’ upon release. Now the prison population us double (2008) – and only 25% ‘go straight’.

Something which also has a detrimental affect on prisoners’ chances of ‘going straight’ is the fact that a third of prisoners are homeless when they are released from jail, making it very likely that they will re-offend. In Liverpool Prison, prisoners were taught construction skills and then used them to do up an abandoned council house once they were released.

Another way to make sure that prisoners remain a part of society, rather than cut off and angered, is to allow them to retain the right to vote. Because they do not currently have that right, MPs do not have to listen to their concerns or raise issues about their welfare. It further disenfranchises them from society, and there is no incentive to make prisons better.

Lastly, it is worth bearing in mind, particularly in this era of ‘savage cuts’, that prisons cost £2.2bn a year. With re-offending rates after release still at about 60% (and over 75% for young offenders) prison is an expensive failure, which has no impact on crime levels or the fear of crime.

1 comment:

  1. Prisoners now have the right to vote, according to the European Court of Human Rights, I think, 5th November 2010.