The last prisoners left Holloway in 2016 and now the justice secretary, David Gauke, is scrapping plans for five new women’s prisons, pledging instead to build more residential offenders’ centres. The prisons minister, Rory Stewart, meanwhile, wants to scrap sentences of less than 12 months, a measure that would benefit many women, whose offences tend to carry shorter custodial sentences.
Why such a political volte-face? Financially, it’s a no-brainer. The dangerously overcrowded prison system cannot be supported at a time of severe budget cuts. Michael Gove took this view when he occupied the justice portfolio but his reforms were scuppered by Chris Grayling, his immediate successor. Gauke has obviously realised that the continued requirements of the NHS and other budget priorities would leave the traditional UK approach to incarceration increasingly exposed. Residential centres are cheaper to build and run. And by increasing the use of community sentences the rates of reoffending, which costs the economy between £9.5bn and £13 bn a year, are greatly reduced.
The UK prison population has doubled in the past 25 years, first driven by Michael Howard’s mantra that “prison works” and then reinforced by the Blair government’s “tough on crime” agenda. Tougher sentencing and more offences on the statute book have seen to that. And yet despite a recent uptick, according to the annual Crime Survey offending has more than halved in that time. That’s not because more people have been going to prison, but because of an ageing population, increased incomes and technological improvements that have made it harder to commit crimes such as car theft and burglary.
In 2013, I spent nine weeks in prison due to a conviction relating to a speeding points offence. [See footnote.] In the process, I spoke to dozens of women whose lives had been ruined by a wrong turn. Many of them had left their children behind and were despairing for their futures. Their stories were heart-rending. The experience also convinced me of the pointlessness for many of the way the system worked. If anything, prison drives up criminality.
Of course some people should go to prison. There are violent women – I met some of them. But the majority of women in prison present no threat to society. They are more of a threat to themselves before and after they are locked up. Many suffer from mental and other disorders and 57% have been victims of domestic abuse. Some 46% have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. A third of all incidents of self-harm in prison are carried out by women, even though they are such a small percentage of the prison population.
In Holloway I could see very little evidence that the system, however hard it tried, was able to cope with these women’s complex problems. In the open prison women had to be shipped out to get counselling. After a visit by her partner and baby, one young woman tried to take her own life while I was there. The response? She was sent back to closed prison for her own safety. My only problem with the latest reform is why, given such evidence, it has taken so long.
• Vicky Pryce is an economist and the author of Prisonomics
• This footnote was added on 28 June 2018 to make clear that while a speeding points offence was the starting point, Vicky Pryce’s jail term was for perversion of justice. Hence the pointer to this footnote from a sentence in the text that initially read: “I spent nine weeks in prison for a speeding points offence” (now amended to “due to a conviction relating to a speeding points offence”). One reference to Vicky Pryce’s book was also removed.
Courtesy – The Guardian