Prison walls aren’t built to scale

Georgie Rea explains the effects of an unfair penal system.

Working in collaboration with the Howard League, this week’s articles will focus on the lives of women in prisons.

The new Minister for Justice, Michael Gove, is on track to implement what will be the biggest reform to the penal system in decades, but what has brought it on? It came about after a recent visit to Texas, when Gove was inspired by reforms there, which are radically transforming justice in one of America’s most conservative States. Capital Punishment and political prisoners attract lots of debate in the US and the UK is often quick to mount its high horse opposing such retribution. However, our own penal system is riddled with cracks and flaws and the last decade has seen the prison structure collapse into crisis.

The Howard League for Penal Reform was established almost a century ago. It has kept the government in check by putting political pressure on their select committees and publishing formal responses to all policies which affect punishment and prison. And this year has the potential to be their most successful yet, as they oversee and critique these reforms.

In the last month alone, phrases such as ‘dirty, overcrowded and unsafe’ and ‘dire, dark and disastrous’ have made the headlines in relation to the penal system. Unsurprisingly, such damning reports of the currently inhumane conditions in prisons are not published by ministers or officials, but by invaluable pressure groups such as the Howard League and The Prison Reform Trust. In fact, statistics Published by the Ministry of Justice show that overcrowding in male local prisons is at its highest and, furthermore, there is a correlation between this figure and the number of inmates reported to have self-harmed, as well as rates of suicide and suicide attempts in prisons, which has increased by 50 per cent since 2013.

Once a citizen, particularly a youth, has entered the penal system, it is near impossible for them to break free from the vicious cycle of crime; adults serving a sentence of less than 12 months currently have a 57.5 per cent chance of re-offending, and the severity of their second crime in half of these cases exceeds that of their first. As prisoners cost the taxpayer £40k per head it is clear that as well as being inhumane, this system is not cost effective. One might like to think that the humanitarian issues would have incited the MPs action sooner, but even if it was only the prospect of saving some more public money which has finally caught their attention, the reforms do look reassuring.

‘We don’t devote nearly enough time to educating [prisoners], to making sure that when they are being educated they are getting the proper qualifications and providing them with the skills that they need in order to succeed in the world of work,’ Mr Gove told The Times. Although this revelation on the part of the government is promising, the arguments that these reforms are too little too late resonates loudly: after all, it was only last year that the Howard League, along with The English Pen, convinced them to overturn the Book Ban. Where was the focus on education when that law was proposed?

The separate issue of cuts to legal aid has affected woman and young offenders the most. Improvements in education within the walls of imprisonment does not detract from their excessive admission to prison in the first place, resulting from our judges’ lack of discretion in their cases. We cross our fingers that these change are a step towards a brighter, less dirty and less overcrowded future for the penal system. Unfortunately, completely restorative justice is still a long way off.

Every day this week we will be posting a new article focusing on different aspects of the lives of women in prison. Make sure you keep following us to never miss an article!

Illustration by Kate Dickinson

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