85,000 people are in UK prisons, the highest number in history. While riots, drugs and deaths inside are on the rise, the government says there's no crisis. Really?
VIDEO SCRIPT: Britain locks up twice as many people as it did 25 years ago. Is this something we should be proud of?
I’m Leon Hawthorne. We talking about prison, putting people behind bars as punishment for their crimes. “Prison works” according to a former Conservative Home Secretary. He, Michael Howard, meant: if we lock up criminals, the rest of us are safe from their offending while they’re inside.
Today, the prison population is 85,000… double the rate of incarceration for countries like Germany and Denmark. The problem is our prisons only have space for 75,000 inmates. So, they’re overcrowded and literally bursting at the seems.
What do you think? If you put a group of bad boys, who like break the rules and are generally up for a fight into a tight confined space, what might happen? You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out.
So, it was no surprise that riots broke out in Birmingham and Swaleside Prisons at Christmas. Riot police had to go in to retake the buildings.
There are not enough prison officers to maintain control or guarantee the safety of officers and vulnerable inmates.
Suicides and deaths in prison stand at record levels, 300-plus a year. Politicians like to out-do each other, talking tough on crime. So, they pass more laws, removing discretion from judges, forcing them to lock up more people for longer. All the time, not rushing to increase spending to build new prisons or renovate old ones.
The prison system is in crisis and I foresee more riots and deaths, including murders of prison officers. Let’s backup a bit and take a look at the big picture.
We in the 21st century are not more criminal than we were in Victorian Britain. We just have a political class that likes to lock up people.
Politicians often say they make tough laws to “send a message”. Well, if you want to send a message, open a Twitter account. The criminal law and the penal system have to be effective, not symbolic. And our prison policy is not working.
We lock up people for stupid offences that should not be crimes in the first place. There’s very little for the prisoners to do inside, so they turn to drugs. Many inmates are semi-literate or have mental health issues, neither of which are adequately addressed inside. So, they come out, commit more serious offences and half go back inside within a year.
While the courts send people down for long sentences, the truth is these sentences are a fraud. Whatever the nominal sentence, prisoners serve only half that time. Then they are released because the prison authorities need space for the next batch of convicts.
This is totally dishonest on the part of politicians, who claim to be tough on crime but effectively play a confidence trick on victims of crime, by pretending criminals serve longer behind bars than they do.
The police know this, the lawyers and the criminals know it… everyone except the victims.
So, I say let’s bring honesty and transparency to sentencing. Judges should sentence offenders to a minimum and a maximum term. For example, for 5 to 8 years. The criminal must stay behind bars for at least the miniMum. And he can earn time off from the maximum term, based on good behaviour. But his sentence shouldn’t be determined by the prison service coping with overcrowding. Next - magistrates courts. They deal with 90% of all criminal trials, the more minor cases. But they can sentence offenders for six months, or a year for multiple offences.
Short sentences are a complete waste of everybody’s time and taxpayers’ money.
Let’s say someone doesn’t pay for their TV licence because they’re poor. So, the BBC prosecutes them and they are fined £1000 by the magistrate. If they had any money in the first place, they would have paid for the TV licence. They can’t pay the fine. So, they get sentenced to six months in prison for non-payment.
They leave prison after three months. But they’ve lost their job, their home, maybe also their family and now they’re in debt.
During their time in prison they mix with hardened criminals. Perhaps get addicted to drugs. Or make new friends with whom they can plan ways to make money on the outside. Why not, no money, no job, what else are you going to do?
A few months later, they’re back inside.
So, what was the point of all that? We are criminalising poverty and then imposing stupid short sentences that make the poor even poorer and more desperate.
I say we need a radical new policy. Let’s remove the capacity of Magistrates Courts from imposing prison sentences altogether. Only serious offences that go to the Crown Court should be eligible for prison time. And the minimum time served should be at least one year. Anything shorter is totally futile.
In place of short term prison sentences under one year, we should have a wider range of non custodial punishments.
I don’t believe that should include fines. Money has no part to play in a fair criminal justice system. If I am guilty of reckless driving, which hurts more - a £200 fine or the loss of my driving licence… or being forced to re-sit my driving test?
We can be more creative about non-custodial and non-financial sentences, which are both punitive and effective. Let’s leave prison for serious, violent and repeat offenders.
I’m Leon Hawthorne. Thanks for watching.