Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
England and Wales have the highest prison population and incarceration rate in Europe. This population is also disproportionately black, second only to the United States in this regard. 26% of our prisoners are non-white, despite just 13% of the population being so.
Prisoners are suffering longer sentences here than anywhere else in Europe, and yet there is no corresponding crime rise to explain this. Despite numerous prison crises in places like Birmingham, there does not seem to be much public outcry. Mass prison officer walkouts, disgusting conditions and all-too-common serious assaults make up many of our prisons today. So why does nobody seem to care?
The state of our prisons is pretty appalling. Self harm, drug addiction, and suicide is rife. The massive increase in these since 2018 has been due to a number of factors. Government cuts have meant that the few prison officers simply don’t have the resources, in some cases to even keep prisons up to a basic standard. Increased privatisation by firms such as G4S has also played a significant role. Tougher sentences are also having little effect on the reduction of crime and have not been implemented as a response to any proportional increase of crime. Such a crisis at the heart of the justice system has not produced the seismic shift in public opinion it should have. Part of this is due to our current political climate, but underlying this are people’s attitudes as a whole.
It’s not popular to argue for prison reform. Yet it’s in everyone’s interest to do so. Even from a right-wing perspective, it’s clear to see that economically the system is a disaster. Not only are 58% of prisons in England and Wales overcrowded, but it costs on average £22,933 per prisoner, each year. Even if you don’t care about prisoners, whether or not they are rehabilitated into society, their life prospects and health, we certainly shouldn’t be wasting this amount of taxpayers’ money when we have so many other issues to deal with. This inefficiency also clearly isn’t working. Crime rates are higher than ever, and the cycle of prisoners becoming trapped in a life of crime has never been more present. The justice system is supposed to rehabilitate prisoners into society. The prisoners you may not care about will be living alongside you as normal in a matter of years. So it’s in your interest to ensure that the prison system works.
God forbid we could ever have a more compassionate approach to crime. My next point is one that I suspect many will find absurd but I’ll make it anyway. The economic and social reasons to care about prisoners are enough, anyway. Prisoners are still human. The vast majority of them are imprisoned for non-violent offences. It seems an obvious point, but when analysing how prisoners are discussed in popular discourse, it’s worth making. The privatisation of prisons in America is so bad that it has contributed to what is modern-day slavery. Prisoners are paid extremely low wages, and their labour doesn’t just consist of maintaining the prison, but making a range of military products. This is hardly an industry that is struggling for funding. In the UK, thousands of prisoners also work full-time, which as an idea is a great thing, but in reality they are being paid on average £10 a week.
I would argue the prison system is specifically designed not to rehabilitate, but to maintain structural oppression, increasingly for profit. But this is a debate for another day. If it’s not, then this failure to do this is down to sheer incompetence. Prisons clearly don’t rehabilitate criminals, they merely put them all in the same place (where they can often learn how to be better at committing crime), and destroy their lives further, nearly always irretrievably. In this prison funding crisis, alongside the awful conditions, violence and mismanagement, there is a lack of the basic educational tools necessary to change lives for the better. This isn’t just a prison issue, it’s a socio-economic one. The vast majority of prisoners are working class, and far more needs to be done in impoverished areas in terms of education, housing and health. It’s heartbreaking to see the destruction of so many people’s lives being maintained by such a callous system. We must change it.