One thing most people may not know about me is that I have a LOT of opinions about the prison system. This is because I grew up around adults who worked in offender rehabilitation, and I considered it as a career for quite a while – pretty much until it became clear that the government had destroyed any chance of developing a restorative justice system in the UK. I ultimately decided that it wasn’t for me because I knew I wouldn’t be able to make a difference that way, and I didn’t have enough emotional energy to expend on a system that at best would be futile, and at worst could be actively harmful to the ex-offenders who are in it, and the communities they live in.
Put simply, my belief about the prison system is as follows: Almost everyone who is in prison, shouldn’t be there. Sure, there are some people who are so dangerous that they need to be separated from society for everyone’s safety, but that is a very small fraction of the prison population, and a totally different kettle of fish in terms of management (and not a topic I’m going to discuss here). The thing is, punishment on its own simply does not work – there’s so much evidence for this I almost feel like it should be a complete sentence. But let me explain. If punishment worked, then why do a quarter of all convicted offenders go on to be convicted of further crimes? (Source) The vast majority of crimes are committed by people who’s lives have frankly sucked, including from mental health problems, drug problems, trauma, poverty and disabilities. If your life is already pretty punishing, why on earth would more punishment do anything to change things? It’s true that most of the people with these issues do not commit crimes against other people – but we’re all different, and we ALL make mistakes. Non-offenders like to think that the difference between them and an offender is much bigger than it really is. It’s shocking the things we are capable of justifying to ourselves – and that goes for behaviour that isn’t against the law too.
I mentioned above that many, if not most, prisoners have experienced societal disadvantages, so let me back that up with some facts:
- Half of all UK prisoners are functionally illiterate. (Source)
- It’s estimated that 30% of UK prisoners are Dyslexic. (Source)
- 20-30% of UK prisoners have ADHD. (Source)
- Rates of PTSD in prisoners are higher than the general population. (Source)
- Almost 50% of prisoners were excluded from school as a child. (Source)
- 24% of prisoners were in the care system as children. (Source)
- 29% of prisoners were abused as children, and 41% witnessed violence in the home. (Source)
- There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that heavily implies a link between childhood poverty and offending. (Source)
It is absolutely true that most people are able to overcome disadvantages like the ones above, living reasonably stable lives that don’t involve breaking the law. But that doesn’t change the fact that these disadvantages present in MUCH higher percentages in prison populations than in the general population. This strongly implies some causal relationship, although it’s important to acknowledge the complexity that goes into making the kinds of mistakes that offenders make.
It can be really difficult to absorb anti-prison ideas (better known as abolitionism), especially if you or a loved one have been a victim of a crime. But the important thing to remember is that this way of thinking isn’t about being ‘soft’ on people who hurt others, or ignoring the trauma that happens when you’re a victim of a crime. And to be clear, victims are not obliged to be involved in their offender’s rehabilitation either. Some may choose to be, but no one should ever feel morally obligated to have anything to do with them. Abolitionism is about doing what we need to do to protect us ALL (victims, offenders, and society as a whole) in the most effective way. It just so happens that the best way to prevent crime is to reduce the reasons people have to offend, and to treat those who do offend with empathy. I’m not saying that beneath the surface of every offender is a lovely person who just needs a hug and a square meal to reveal themselves as a wonderful example of humanity. Just like the rest of the population, some offenders are simply unpleasant. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t people. We all have flaws – greed, selfishness, bitterness, anger, intolerance are all very VERY common human personality traits and absolutely aren’t unique to people who break the law. One of the most unpleasant people I’ve ever met has, as far as I know, never broken the law in his life. And many offenders really ARE thoughtful, kind, empathetic people who have gone the wrong way at some point.
An anecdote: I used to volunteer at a foodbank in a town that was also home to a men’s prison. At Christmas, the residents of the prison FLOODED the foodbank with donations that they’d bought with the minuscule amounts of money they had, which is incredible but it doesn’t stop there – they’d gone one step further and created meal kits – for example one had wrapped lasagne sheets up with a jar of white and red sauce to create a lasagne meal kit.
What gives your life meaning? What gives you hope in the morning, what motivates you to get your laundry done or get on the bus to work every day? Maybe it’s your dog, a hobby or your kids, or maybe even your career. For a lot of people who wind up committing crimes, they have yet to find that motivation. I can sympathise, because I’m the same. I love my loved ones, I find enjoyment in some things, but I wouldn’t say I have much of a raison d’être. I can absolutely imagine that if I didn’t have the privileges I have in life, I could fall into making some less than ideal decisions. I mean, after all, I’ve totally broken the law before! I’ve watched TV without checking that there’s a TV license. I’ve watched pirated content online. I’ve brought my shopping home and realised that something in my bag isn’t on the receipt, and I didn’t take it back.
People who break the law are as diverse as everyone else – every single person has different needs and reacts differently to life. So why do we act like prison, an environment where everyone is treated exactly the same, is a suitable consequence? It might feel good to say that people should be banged up as punishment for their actions – but is it effective? Does it actually help the victim of a crime, or help to reduce the numbers of future victims? Or are we indulging base desires just because retribution feels good – desires that do nothing to help create a safer society?
You can’t reform a human by being inhumane
I honestly believe that a lot of people who think offenders ‘deserve to be locked up’ have never spent any time thinking about what it’s like to actually be in prison. To say that prison is a dangerous, dirty, lonely place is an understatement.
CW: self harm
Between 2019 and 2020 there were on average 777 incidents of self harm per 1000 prisoners. (Source) This average includes open prisons and category D prisons, both of which are very different environments to what you’d usually imagine when you think of a prison, and as such, have lower rates of self harm, such as 2.7 incidents per 1000 at HMP Hatfield, a cat D. At HMP Foston Hall, a women’s and young offenders prison, self harm rates during this period were sat outrageously high at 6887.1 incidents per 1000 prisoners, and at HMP Bristol, a cat B men’s prison, the rate was 2297.2 incidents per 1000 prisoners. While these statistics are a useful insight into understanding which prisons are the worst, it’s the total number of self harm incidents that chills me. In a UK prison population of 83,618, there were 63,328 incidents of self harm in that one year period. What. The. Hell.
Prisoners are also scared of each other, with good reason. The rate of violence between prisoners was 267 incidents per 1000 prisoners between 2019 and 2020. (Source) But that number, while unacceptable, simply pales in comparison to those self harm statistics, implying strongly that incarcerated individuals are more likely to be people suffering with mental health problems than they are to be mindlessly violent.
Out of the entire prison population, only 12,500 were in work between 2019 and 2020, meaning that just a small minority of prisoners are being given the opportunity to do anything meaningful with their time. And remember that a majority of prisoners struggle with literacy, so spending time alone with books is off the table for a LOT of people too. The government’s ‘purposeful activity’ inspection rated 35.6% of prisons as ‘not good enough’ and a further 15.3% as ‘poor’ when it comes to providing prisoners with beneficial stuff to do. (Source)
Sometimes ex-offenders do feel like prison benefitted them – and that’s understandable to a degree – if your life was spiralling out of control, you were illiterate, had no skills, and you were taken to a place where all of that changed, you would probably come out feeling like it helped. But why does that person need to go through the horror of our prison system to get what they needed? And why didn’t social care programmes intervene long before they point in the first place?
Why do we perpetuate a system created by our barbaric ancestors, the same ones that thought nothing of torturing, oppressing and enslaving anyone they could find? Prison is convenient, which is why it has somehow managed to slink by under the radar of progress. Capitalist societies are not cut out to deal with people who need massive, individualised investment in their wellbeing. It’s much easier to just lock them away and pretend they don’t exist.
People should be held responsible for their actions. But that’s only fair when we actively help each other to be the best we can be. We all talk about individual responsibility for doing our recycling, eating less meat, buying fairtrade bananas – but we have local, personal and social responsibility to each other too. If we focused more on lifting each other up rather than expecting everyone to just live up to our own standards, without recognising the privileges we’ve had to help us get there, I believe we could really help to empower people who may otherwise make some pretty significant mistakes.
Prison does not belong in a just and fair society, it doesn’t benefit the people who are in the system, and it doesn’t benefit the people who are victims of crime either.
If you’d like to read more about this topic, of which I have barely scratched the surface, here are some more resources.
- This excellent article on Amilah about Rethinking our Justice System
- This really good fact sheet by the Prison Reform Trust – Prison: the facts
- Everything on the website for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies
- This UK abolitionist history page on Abolitionist Futures