England and Wales have the highest incarceration rate in all of Western Europe with the number of people imprisoned continuing to climb. The British government recently announced plans to build a "mega prison" which will ultimately add a further 1,600 inmates to the prison estate.
Matt Ford, Research Analyst at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, argues that simply incarcerating an ever increasing number of people is more about punishment than it is about public safety and is ultimately a political choice which should be challenged.
Sputnik: Describe the state of the prison estate in England and Wales.
Matt Ford: Prisons continue to be miserable, harmful and unsafe places. 60 per cent of establishments are overcrowded, and they are dirty and squalid. Much of the estate is old, and there is a massive backlog of repairs to prison buildings which continue to go unaddressed. There are very high levels of mental health and drug problems, self-harm, suicide, poor physical health and disease. Even before lockdown prisoners spent most of the day stuck in their cells, with poor access to services, programmes and activities.
But the problem of prisons is not just a problem of conditions. The existence of prisons is a political choice about how as a society we deal with social problems. Prisons are there to manage and punish people who experience social problems most acutely, not to protect us from harm.
Sputnik: How do you respond to the government's plans to build more prisons in England, including the "mega prison" scheduled to be built in Northamptonshire?
Matt Ford: Between the early 1990s and the early 2010s the prison population in England and Wales nearly doubled. There are now over 80,000 people locked up in prisons at any one time, and we have the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe. Far too many people are incarcerated unnecessarily. The government should be urgently reducing the prison population and taking capacity out of the system by closing establishments. The land should instead be redeveloped to provide resources and services to meet people's needs so that prisons are no longer required as a response to social problems.
Sputnik: Given the fact that so many prisons are overcrowded and in a state of disrepair doesn't it make sense that newer prisons are slated to be built to replace the old ones?
Matt Ford: Plans to close old prisons are currently on hold, and Boris Johnson has stated his intention to increase the number of police officers by 20,000, meaning we will probably see more people being arrested, prosecuted and sent to prison. It is therefore highly likely that the 10,000 new prison places will mean 10,000 additional places, and 10,000 more people locked up, rather than a like-for-like replacement of new prisons for old. The perennial problems of overcrowding and old, dilapidated buildings will remain.
But the main problem is that as a society we rely far too much on prison as a response to social problems, rather than properly investing in meeting people's needs and preventing harm.
Sputnik: Surely societies need to punish and isolate dangerous and violent offenders from everyone else. What alternative is there other than to incarcerate criminals and build more prisons?
Matt Ford: High levels of violence are not an inevitable feature of society. Rates of violence differ between countries depending on the particular ways those societies are organised. In other words, the social context influences levels of violence, rather than it simply being the actions of individuals. Measures which aim to address economic and gender inequality, for example, would have a significant impact on levels of violence. There is also strong evidence that more localised, non-enforcement led public health approaches which aim to address key relationship- and individual-level risk factors for violence are effective. This includes nurse visitation and parenting programmes to prevent child maltreatment.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.