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Opinion: Locking up more people for longer will not make society safer

05 October 2023

The way to deal with overcrowding in prisons is not to build more of them. Look to community alternatives, argues Rachel Treweek


AFTER the recent escape of a prisoner from HM Prison Wandsworth, there were immediate answers being demanded about how the prison could possibly have allowed this to happen (Comment, 15 September). The problem is that the questions that we ask can lead to answers which don’t actually shine the light in the right places.

As part of Prisons Week, which runs from 8 to 14 October, I was, therefore, glad when I gradually began to hear some people asking questions about prison numbers and overcrowding — although, even then, such questions can result in simplistic answers about needing to build additional prisons and create more prison places, and possibly even send prisoners to cells overseas.

It is not the capacity of our prisons which is too small, but, rather, our diminished ability to think long-term.

If we seriously asked questions about why our prisons were so overcrowded and why it was hard to recruit and retain prison staff, we might arrive at some different and difficult answers. But we also might find ourselves building stronger, kinder, and safer communities across our cities, towns, and villages.

AS THE Church of England’s Bishop for HM Prisons, with the privilege of engaging with people across the different spheres of criminal justice, I reject the popular message that our streets and communities would be safer if we locked up more people and made sentences longer. That is not just because, as a Christian, I believe in hope, redemption, and transformation, but also because the evidence and data do not support the narrative.

We now have one of the largest prison populations in Western Europe, and the number of people sentenced to more than ten years in prison has more than doubled in a decade.

Yet, statistics reveal that approximately half of all those leaving custody go on to reoffend within a year of their release, and the figure is even higher for those sentenced to less than 12 months.

Contrary to what people may conclude from reading the headlines, more than two-thirds of people in prison are there for non-violent offences, and many of them are connected to drug addiction. I never condone crime, and nor do I want to imply a simplistic narrative of cause and effect; but you do not have to spend very long working in prison, or with people caught up in the criminal-justice system, to realise that poverty, deprivation, and trauma feature prominently in the story.

Undoubtedly, there are people who need to be locked up for the safety of the public, and, of course, people who have blighted and wounded the lives of other people and their communities need to face the consequences. That becomes increasingly uncomfortable, however, when we recognise that this is true for all of us, because we are living with the consequences of failing to ask the right questions.

Much more transformation and reduction in reoffending could take place for so many people within good community alternatives to prison, and by looking for the underlying issues of offending. This requires imagination and a commitment to investing the money differently.

Indeed, those who are not interested in asking compassionate questions about offenders and victims, and their stories, do tend to take note of finance and taxpayers’ money.

SO, LET’S start asking questions about the value for money of sending someone to prison at a cost in the region of £50,000 p.a., and to ask questions about the social and economic cost of reoffending, which enters the sphere of billions of pounds per year. And this is just the tip of the financial iceberg.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, has stated that one in ten prisons is not fit for its purpose. Successive inspection reports reveal that a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration is largely absent.

If we had the courage to ask the big questions about what prisons are for, and the sort of society and communities that we long to shape, it might take us to some different, life-giving answers — for the victims of crime as well as its perpetrators, noting that many people are both.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, justice is not synonymous with vengeance and punishment, but resides challengingly alongside mercy, love, and restoration, and presents some hard questions about what it means to be human.

It’s not only some cell doors that need unlocking, but also our hearts and minds.

In the mean time, within the Church, it is Prisons Week. So, I am joining people praying for all those whose lives are affected by crime and the criminal-justice system, and for all who work within it, and all who believe in change and hold fast to hope — not least, prison chaplains.

I am also praying for a cascade of different questions, so that the party manifestos that appear in the coming months may not trumpet a desire for toughness and more imprisonment, emerging from a false narrative that it will shape a stronger and safer Britain. What might that look like? Now, there’s a question.

The Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester, is the Bishop for Prisons.

For nearly 50 years, Prisons’ Week has encouraged prayer for prisoners and their families, victims of crime, their communities, and those working or volunteering in the criminal justice system. www.prisonsweek.org

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