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Paul Vallely: Prison policy is inefficient and immoral  

09 December 2022

Incarcerating more people is counter-productive, argues Paul Vallely

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WHEN the sheep are separated from the goats at the Last Judgement, I suspect the line that many of us will find most problematic is: “I was in prison and you visited me.” As a society, we prefer our criminals to be locked away, out of our sight. And the current Government wants to lock away more of them, and for longer.

Such a policy is both unethical and counter-productive. It is also unsustainable, as was clear from the announcement by the Minister for Prisons, Damian Hinds, when he told Parliament last week that 400 police cells were to be used temporarily to hold prisoners, after an “acute and sudden” increase in the prison population.

Let us leave aside his curious suggestion that the cause of this is the recent barristers’ strike. It is now a default tactic to blame the problems of 12 years of Conservative government on anyone who goes on strike in reaction to the chaos that ministers that have caused. The Tory chairman, Nadhim Zahawi, even told nurses, preposterously, that their strike would play into the hands of Vladimir Putin.

The number of prisoners on remand was already at a 14-year high before barristers started industrial action over Legal Aid cuts. Over-capacity prisons were entirely predictable to anyone outside this shambolic short-termist Government.

Dostoevsky once famously said that the civilisation of a society can be judged by entering its prisons. HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, reported this week inmates doubled up in 12ft-by-6ft cells for more than 23 hours a day. Prison officers are leaving their jobs at an increasing rate, arousing concerns of the experience levels of the colleagues whom they leave behind. Very few prisons, with such inexperienced staff, have returned to pre-Covid living conditions, education classes, or rehabilitation schemes.

The big takeaway message from the two years that I spent on the Independent Commission into the Experience of Victims and Long-term Prisoners, talking to prisoners, prison staff, and victims of crime, was this: when it comes to curbing recidivism, the content of a prison sentence is as important as its length (30 September).

The Commission’s chairman, Bishop James Jones, told the Justice Select Committee last week that the evidence shows that it is through the content of a sentence that offenders are reformed and rehabilitated, and that reoffending is reduced and society made safer. In contrast, ever-lengthening sentences offer poor value-for-money and fail to address reoffending.

Current conditions are making that worse, not better. As the Chief Inspector of Prisons succinctly puts it: “You cannot rehabilitate someone if they are banged up behind their cell door for 23 hours a day.”

The current policy is both inefficient and immoral. It is inefficient because it spends public money badly, and immoral because, to quote Pope John Paul II, “prison should not be a corrupting experience, a place of idleness and even vice, but instead a place of redemption.”

England and Wales now have 82,839 men behind bars, up from 79,685 last year. The Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, is planning to increase the prison population to almost 100,000. This is in the teeth of the evidence that such a costly approach fails to reduce crime and reoffending.

The truth is that, if prison worked, we would be shutting prisons, not opening more.

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