Journalists pray for disasters for the same reason that farmers pray for rain: they bring us a bumper crop of stories. So I hope I am not being blinded by self-interest when I look at prisons and sense an impending crisis.
Despite the public’s unshakeable belief that the judges are limp-wristed liberals and the police are social workers in uniform, the prison population has risen remorselessly for a generation – 45,600 in 1989, 61,100 when Labour came to power in 1997, 82,500 last year, 85,750 today. Typically, although Tony Blair willed the end of a tough crime strategy, Gordon Brown would not will the means to build more jails.
The result is inhuman levels of overcrowding as men double up and in some cases triple up in fetid cells. While you enjoy your Sunday, it is worth remembering prisoners will be in the middle of weekend lock-downs. From Friday night to Monday morning, governors confine them to the cells for 23 hours a day because they don’t have the staff to police them.
In such chaotic circumstances, the rehabilitation of offenders is near impossible and the public is suffering along with the prisoners. It has always been fanciful to believe that a spell in jail could persuade a majority of inmates to go straight. Now it feels utopian. As the service collapses, the reconviction rate for released inmates has gone from 58% to 65% in the past five years. The real failure rate must be higher, because the official figures only include those ex-cons the police catch and convict and I somehow doubt that they catch and convict all of them.
To anyone who remembers the jail riots of 1990, today’s shambles brings back memories. The lock-downs and the inability of harried prison staff to attempt to reform offenders’ behaviour is the same then as now. Even the cast of characters is unchanged. The Howard League for Penal Reform, Prison Reform Trust and the probation workers’ union Napo still complain as they always have done. Only one actor is missing from the stage… read the whole thing