Our prisons are a national disgrace. We are locking up too many people

Noel Yaxley

August 6, 2020

Boris Johnson has had a lot on his plate recently. But there is one particular area of government policy which must be urgently addressed. It falls under law and order.

Back in the summer of 2019, when life was a lot more straightforward, it was revealed that our prime minister had pledged to expand our already bloated prison capacity. This was to be done by creating 10,000 new prison places. Other proposals included expanding already existing prisons, like the new prison HMP Full Sutton in Yorkshire, at a cost of £2.5bn.

But we are at risk of overlooking one very important issue. We are already locking up too many people. There are currently 82,000 people locked up in prison in England and Wales, the highest prison population in western Europe. In the last 25 years, our prison population has effectively doubled, despite data from the national crime survey showing no correlation between crime levels and prison population.

This had led to a severely overcrowded and understaffed prison service. Of the 116 prisons in England and Wales, 71 are overcrowded. This produces a breeding ground for violence. As such, riots are commonplace. Take, for example, the 2016 HMP Birmingham riots, where 500 inmates were involved in one of the worst riots seen in Britain since 1990. The lack of experienced prison staff led to seventy of the most dangerous criminals being transferred out of Long Lartin jail in Worcestershire after prisoners began a riot which involved setting fires and assaulting prison staff.

Staff and prisoners are less safe now than they have ever been since records began. Assaults on staff are commonplace. They have tripled in five years, from 3,266 in 2013 to 10,059 in 2019. In 2019, over 300 prisoners died. That’s nearly one a day.

Something has to change.

A vast majority of these people should not be in prison. While we must incarcerate those in society who have committed the worst crimes, of the 59,000 sent to prison in England and Wales in 2018, 69 per cent were for non-violent crimes. A vast majority of those were non-violent drug offences.

A new solution is required, especially when it comes to drugs. As the Adam Smith Institute’s Daniel Pryor suggests, we need a new approach to drug policy. By moving to a harm reduction program where we can regulate, legislate and tax drug users, we can move a drugs market worth £5.3bn out of criminals’ hands and free our prisons from locking up people who have no need to be there. The tax gained would fund rehabilitation for the serious user and provide education and drug-testing kits for the average part-time user attending a summer festival.

When the average cost of keeping an individual incarcerated for a year is estimated at around £37,000, there remains an incentive to keep the less dangerous out of prison. But the latest figures reveal that over half of all those on remand awaiting trial are charged with committing non-violent offences. And with a prison population projected to rise by 3,000 by March 2023, it is time we start to rethink our approach to law and order.

Punishment is the cruellest form of education. Imprisonment is anathema to an individual’s freedom. It is the very definition of a restriction on liberty. As freedom is such an important part of an individual’s life, we must be extremely careful when it comes to violating that most fundamental of rights.


Written by Noel Yaxley

Noel Yaxley is a freelance writer.


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