Ken Clarke’s attack on the Michael Howard/New Labour bang ‘em up culture is welcome. With currently 85,000 prisoners behind bars, by far the highest rate of detention of any country in Europe, he is right to demand alternatives. Prison does take violent men out of circulation so as to protect the public for a time, but it is not a deterrent (i.e. not a punishment sufficient to prevent a large majority from re-criminalising after release) and it fails drastically in rehabilitation – the main effect of prison experience is to intensify criminality.
It’s obvious that prison is not a suitable repository for most prisoners. Half of the men and three-quarters of the women have no qualifications. Two-thirds are innumerate and half are illiterate. Two-thirds were unemployed and one-third homeless when they were detained. Three-quarters are either mentally ill or mentally unstable (compared with 5% in the wider population). Over half suffered from alcohol excess or drug abuse. And economically the system is counter-productive: it costs over £40,000 per prison place per year (over £3.2bn), while the cost of re-offending (which 60% even of short-term offenders do) is put at £11bn a year. So what should be done? (more…)