If someone asked you why people are sent to prison, what would you say?
“Because it keeps us safe,” you might argue. Maybe you’ll say that offenders need to be punished, to be taught a lesson. Perhaps taking criminals off the streets represents justice for victims and their families. Or is it about reforming and rehabilitating people who have taken a wrong turn?
The problem is, whatever you role you think prison plays in modern Britain, it’s getting harder and harder to argue that it’s working. The prison population has risen by 70 per cent in the last 30 years. Few would claim society has got much safer.
As for teaching prisoners a lesson, 48 per cent of adults reoffend within a year of their release. For those serving sentences shorter than a year, that jumps to 65 per cent. What about rehabilitation? The proportion of prisoners involved in education or achieving qualifications is falling steadily.
On release, inmates – who may have lost jobs, homes and families for the sake of a weeks-long sentence – are handed a £46 stipend, which hasn’t increased since 1995. Less than half of those released in 2018-19 had settled accommodation to go to – and 16 per cent ended up sleeping rough.
That’s before factoring in the cost. The taxpayer spends more than £41,000 per year to keep a single prisoner behind bars – and there are nearly 80,000 people currently locked up in England and Wales.
Yet prisons remain an immovable reality, largely beyond reproach, subject to – at best – limited reform around the edges.
“If you had any public institution that was failing so badly, you would probably close it down and suggest we do things differently,” Deborah Coles, director of charity INQUEST, says. So why don’t we?
‘Abolish prisons’ is a much more nuanced mission statement than it sounds. Just like ‘defund the police’ isn’t a call for the dissolution of any and all law enforcement, abolitionists do not want to tear down prisons, cross their fingers and hope for the best.
“What abolitionists have generally tried to avoid is a zero-sum argument that it’s either reform or revolution,” explains Professor David Scott of the Open University, an avowed abolitionist. ”It’s not about pulling down prison walls – it’s about positive change.
“The overall goal is to get to a point where our society can recognise that prisons are not very effective in reducing harm and wrongdoing, and are in fact more likely to perpetuate it.”
But, in 21st century Britain, that is a very difficult argument to make. “The problem with this country is that as soon as you start arguing on that terrain, then you’re immediately branded as pro-crime and anti-victim,” says Professor Joe Sim, a criminologist at Liverpool John Moores University.
Prisons, he argues, have been “ideologically constructed as a bulwark against crime and criminality”. In doing so, the criteria for what qualifies as criminality – and the role of the prison in protecting society from it – has been distorted.
“Some people see prison as a defence against dangerousness,” he says. “Well, how do you define dangerousness? Those people who put the cladding on Grenfell, should they be characterised as dangerous?”
The law and order ideology – deeply embedded in the UK’s flagship media institutions as well as its politicians – has not only made changing the penal system feel like some kind of utopian fantasy, it has put strict constraints on what qualifies as ‘acceptable’ discourse.
“The relationship between politicians and the media sets the parameters of what is legitimate knowledge and what we can talk about,” Scott says.
British public opinion on whether criminals can be rehabilitated is split down party lines. Nearly half of Labour or Liberal Democrat voters think a murderer can be reformed – but just 13 per cent of Conservative voters think a shoplifter is capable of changing their ways.
If you flip the ‘soft on crime’ debate to prisons, however, there is more unanimity. Fewer than one in ten people believe putting more people in prison is the most effective way to deal with crime. Early intervention, better parenting and better discipline in schools are all seen as more helpful responses.
Abolitionists believe that there’s a disconnect between the tough-on-crime rhetoric of some politicians and newspapers and what the public actually thinks. “The general public is nowhere near as punitive as politicians anticipate,” Scott suggests.
Coles, whose charity – INQUEST – focusses on deaths in state custody, agrees. “I think the public has travelled a bit more than politicians,” she says.
Many believe that the pandemic has provided an opportunity to rethink and remake core aspects of society – from the world of work to the layout of our urban spaces.
The prison system is seldom mentioned in the same breath. Yet, campaigners argue, coronavirus represented a rare opportunity to radically change the realities of the British penal system.
Last March – when there were just over 8,000 confirmed cases of the virus in the UK – Justice Secretary Robert Buckland unveiled an early release scheme, to ease the pressure put on prisons by the pandemic.
Despite as many as 4,000 prisoners being eligible for the scheme, including many pregnant women, just 275 were actually released by the time it was wound down last August. A total of 71 prisoners have died from Covid-19 since the pandemic began – 24 of them in December alone.
For campaigners, ministers’ lukewarm embrace of the programme squandered a golden opportunity to show that offenders could serve out their sentences in the community without society imploding.
“It’s been a complete failure,” Kate Paradine – chief executive of charity Women in Prison (WIP) – said. “The government had an opportunity to radically reduce prison numbers. Yet, nearly a year into this crisis, we still have a situation where the majority of people in prison don’t need to be there.”
The row highlights a fundamental problem for prison abolitionists. Even if the circumstances are ripe to try something different, top-down commitment is still needed to push through change.
That stasis has been especially evident in the fight to abolish women’s prisons – which experts point to as an achievable and common-sense first step towards proving that incarceration is not the only answer.
“All the root causes of offending for women – domestic abuse, mental health issues, substance misuse – are better addressed in community settings,” says Paradine.
Less than five per cent of those in prison in the UK are women – yet that cohort accounts for more than 19 per cent of self-harm incidents, according to the Prison Reform Trust.
Those women are highly likely to be victims as well as offenders. Over half the women in prison report having suffered domestic abuse, and 53 per cent report experiencing emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child.
Prison separates an estimated 17,000 children from their mothers every year. “There are twelve women’s prisons across the country and, with women making up five per cent of the prison population, that means women are on average held much further away from home,” Paradine explains.
“In nine-out-of-ten cases, when a mother goes to prison, her children end up leaving their home – either to live in care, or to live with grandparents or other relatives. That’s where you really see the cruelty of the system.”
The solution, she argues, is to invest heavily in community rehabilitation centres and women’s centres.
“What we imagine is a system that starts with what brought people to the system in the first place. That would mean that the only people subject to any form of incarceration would be those who have committed offences that the public need to be protected from. For women, that is an extremely small number of people.”
That’s before factoring in the significant number of women dying behind bars. In December, 18-year-old Annelise Sanderson became the eighth woman to die in prison in 2020 – the fifth at HMP Styal, in Cheshire, in the last three years.
Sanderson was serving a year-long sentence for assaulting a member of the public, a paramedic and two police officers after being caught stealing a pair of trainers in Wigan. “The punishment of prison is so disproportionate,” Paradine reflects.
Fifteen years ago, Baroness Corston – a former MP and chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party under Tony Blair – was commissioned by the Home Office to conduct a report into vulnerable women in the criminal justice system.
The Corston Report, as it came to be known, outlined “the need for a radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach” to the issue of women in prison.
“It was a real opportunity to do something different and to recognise that the majority of women in prison pose no risk to anybody,” Coles says. “Had the political will existed, we could have seen the end of women’s prisons.”
But that political consensus dissipated when Labour plunged out of power in 2010 – and the Corston Report fell by the wayside. Nonetheless, Paradine believes it still offers the blueprint for reimagining the position of women in prison – and, possibly, for a more general drift towards abolitionism.
“Baroness Corston imagined very small custodial centres that wouldn’t be like prisons at all – in terms of their size and their institutional nature. They would not be focussed, in inception and design, on punishment.
“That would mean that thousands more women would be provided with support in community settings, and not in prison settings. That’s why we’re focussed on establishing a network of women’s centres across the country, which provide a proven alternative to punishment in terms of enabling in women’s spaces to address holistically the problems that brought them into the criminal justice system in the first place.”
Doing so could provide a blueprint for elsewhere in the criminal justice system, she argues. “We can transform that corner of the prison system as a model for what could be done for men and for the children who are still left in prison.”
There is a mounting body of evidence, from Britain and overseas, that abolition-inspired alternatives to incarceration can be effective. Norway is the example cited by most. Take Bastøy, a prison island a couple of miles adrift of the coast in a fjord about 50 miles south-east of Oslo.
Inmates live in a village-style setting, tending to farm animals, playing tennis, cooking and playing cards. They have their own beach – and even operate the ferry which takes people to and from the island.
Even in maximum security prisons like Skien – an imposing concrete castle in south-east Norway where mass murderer Anders Breivik is serving his sentence – cells have televisions and ensuite showers. Prisoners are offered education and skills-based training.
British tabloids have labelled Norwegian prisons “cushy” – likening them to holiday camps, an accusation that made Bastøy’s ex-governor, Arne Nilsen, gristle when he was asked about it several years ago.
“You don’t change people by power,” he said. “Here I give prisoners respect; this way we teach them to respect others. It is important that when they are released they are less likely to commit more crimes. That is justice for society.”
There is no life sentence in Norway. Its maximum prison term is 21 years, which Breivik is serving. Everyone who serves time will eventually be released back into society – so there is an obvious incentive to help rehabilitate offenders.
That is true of Britain, too. Although the numbers of people given life sentences has steadily increased in recent years, just a handful of people who go to prison will stay there forever. “What people forget is that people who go in come out,” Coles says.
That, perhaps, offers the most powerful rebuttal to a question often asked of abolitionists: what do you propose to do with mass murderers? Incarceration is expensive. But if the only people locked up, in the traditional sense, were the 60-or-so men who are currently slated to spend the rest of their lives behind bars in the UK, that’s a lot of money left over.
“Can you imagine,” Coles asks, “what we could do if we reinvested the money we pump into the prison system into hospitals and mental health services?”
Reconfiguring the prison estate has worked in Norway.
The number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population hovers around 50, compared to roughly 150 in England and Wales, and its crime rate is about half as high. “If prison was so good at preventing crime, America would be the safest country in the world – and Norway would be the most dangerous,” Sims says.
The prospect of the UK pivoting to a Bastøy-type model of incarceration is far-fetched. But there have been concrete efforts to change the status quo here which, their proponents claim, have proven successful.
Among them is Barlinnie Special Unit, established in Glasgow in the 1970s, which was home to some of Scotland’s most violent offenders and had an explicit focus on therapy and drug counselling.
An art therapist was brought in to encourage the men to express themselves through drawing, painting or sculpture and one inmate – convicted murderer Jimmy Boyle – went on to become a world-renowned sculptor. He has since set up a school for local children in Morocco.
HMP Grendon in Buckinghamshire, which operates entirely as a therapeutic community, has trodden a similar path. Inmates volunteer to go there, are given control over their day-to-day lives and can be voted out of the community at any point.
On his most recent visit to Grendon, in 2017, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, wrote that “the values, principles and practice seen at Grendon could provide positive lessons and inspiration for other prisons.” The Prison and Probation service, he added, “should ensure this example is shared more widely for the benefit of others”.
Grendon’s reoffending rate is consistently lower than other prisons in England and Wales. So why hasn’t its blueprint been developed and replicated across the country?
“The answer, I think, is because they hold up a mirror to our society and show us that there are abolitionist alternatives,” Sims reflects. “These places actually do something about serious crime – and show that ‘animals’ can change.”
The American abolitionist Angela Davis wrote that the ideological function of a prison is as an “abstract site” into which “undesirables are deposited”.
Doing so, she argued, “[relieves] us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society – especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”
Seen that way, the prison system is ‘out of sight, out of mind’ wrought physical. Or, as Davis put it, “a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited”.
Abolitionists are divided over whether this system – so deeply enmeshed with the functioning of the modern state – can ever be changed without fundamentally reconstituting the state itself.
But what is clear is that neither reform nor revolution is possible without overcoming the disconnect that currently exists between prisons and public – and dispelling the notion that prisons are the reserve of “evildoers”, in George W. Bush’s words.
“We have to educate, educate, educate and generate a rational debate and understanding about what prison is,” Scott says.
Coles adds: “There’s nothing that brings that into more stark relief than looking at the human stories of those who die in state custody. Follow their journeys, and you see that – so often – those who die in prisons have been lamentably failed by another state agency before they’ve entered the criminal justice system.”
Highlighting the endemic perniciousness of that system could go a long way to loosening the law and order ideology’s grip and force the public to think differently about criminality.
“Why is there always a prison place but not, say, a refuge space for women with mental ill health or a backstory filled with domestic violence and trauma,” Coles says. “Why are there no youth clubs, but we pump billions into a system which only really fails?”
Those difficult questions are yet to seriously penetrate the mainstream. But, thanks to prison abolitionists, they soon might.
Related: The Other Prison Pandemic