Sunday, 5 April 2009

*Johann Hari: Crime problem? Just lock 'em in the lavatory

I have just come across this excellent article by Johann Hari. By coincidence, I have just finished reading 'The Prison Diaries of Jeffrey Archer' - Johann's old boss. JA makes some excellent recommendations not too dissimilar from Johann.

Previously published in The Independent

Johann Hari: Crime problem? Just lock 'em in the lavatory

And so the story of the moral implosion of the British prison system comes to this: we are imprisoning people in toilets. Doncaster prison – run by the private firm Serco – was designed to hold 800 people, but it now pens in more than a thousand. So the governors have put beds in the toilets, and detained people there for more than 18 hours a day, week after week. In toilets. In Britain. Today.

There are now two prison systems in this country. There is Her Majesty's Prison Service, where mad and broken people are warehoused alongside the genuinely violent in cramped and fetid cells. Then there is the Fantasy Prison System, implanted by the press in the public imagination, where pampered prisoners are given foot massages while watching flat-screen TVs.

No matter how many prisons I visit, from Wormwood Scrubs to Feltham Young Offenders Institute, I cannot find the holiday camps. Instead, I find prisons that clunkingly conform to every "tough" demand of the right – and are therefore placing you and your family in greater danger.

Allow me to explain. When our prisons contained 40,000 people, back in 1993, they managed to make 47 per cent of the inmates go straight. But today – after cramming twice as many people into almost the same space – that rate has dramatically plummeted to just 25 per cent. The rest graduate to the same or worse crimes.

We know what makes criminals less likely to reoffend. We have known for years, from study after study after study – but drunk on rhetoric, we are speeding in the opposite direction. So let's go through the recipe that really turns prisoners into law-abiding citizens, abandoned in the mid-1990s when Michael Howard got Britain smoking the crack-down crack.

Ingredient One: Transfer the mentally ill into secure hospitals. The first thing that strikes you in any prison is how many of the people there are insane. One 60-year-old man diagnosed with serious brain damage staggered up to me in the bowels of Wormwood Scrubs thinking I was his father. The Government admits 13 per cent of our prisoners have schizophrenia and 70 per cent have one or more diagnosable mental disorder. I could fill this newspaper with descriptions of prisoners who stab their own necks with knives or set fire to themselves at Her Majesty's Pleasure.

There is another way. The state of Pennsylvania was facing the same prison problem as Britain – so they decided that if the police arrest a mentally ill person, he should no longer go into the normal courts system. When, say, Sally Judson – a diagnosed schizophrenic who developed a heroin habit – was picked up for disorderly conduct recently, she was taken to a mental health "court". Instead of jailing her, they drew up an action plan with her. They found her a doctor, a therapist and a waitressing job. If she relapses on heroin, there is a rehab place waiting for her. This system works: mentally ill people have a 55 per cent reoffending rate in the normal courts, but in the mental health courts it is just 10 per cent.

Ingredient Two: Make sure prisoners stay in touch with their families. You can hear the Gaunt-groans and the Littlejohn-lies now: who cares if some criminal bastard can't speak to his baby-mother? But the evidence shows this is the single biggest factor in keeping a criminal from reoffending. If you manage to keep your partner, you are 20 per cent more likely to stay out of jail. But our prisons actually militate against this. Because of the severe overcrowding, some 37,000 prisoners are being held more than three hours' journey from home, and 5,000 are being held more than six hours away. Their mostly broke families can't afford the long journey. Telephone? BT charges up to seven times more to call home from prison than it would cost from a normal phone box. Far away and expensive to phone, nearly half of male prisoners currently lose touch with their families.

Ingredient Three: Make sure prisoners aren't illiterate and homeless when they walk out the prison gates. When they arrive, a third of prisoners can't read or write a word. They almost invariably leave as they came. The Adult Learning Inspectorate found fewer than 8 per cent of prisoners are taught to read and then given meaningful work that could lead to a job on the outside. Worse, one-third of prisoners are released to "No Fixed Abode" – a friend's couch, if they're lucky.

In Liverpool prison, I saw a brilliant scheme where prisoners are taught construction skills – and then use them to do up an abandoned council house to live in when they leave. It's a crime-busting double whammy: work skills, and a house nobody else wanted. Why isn't this being done in every prison in Britain?

Ingredient Four: Medicalise prisoners' drug addictions. Some 12 per cent of prisoners are heroin addicts, imprisoned either for possessing the drug or committing property crimes to feed their ravaging need. Wouldn't it be better to spend the £40,000 of jail money to put them in rehab? True, heroin addiction is so powerful that the even the best rehab in the world fails with 80 per cent of addicts. But for them, we can prescribe a clean, legal supply for £4,000 a year. Then they can lead healthy lives: Arthur Conan Doyle and the father of modern surgery, William Halsted, did. When the Swiss did this, burglary fell by 70 per cent.

Ingredient Five: Make sure prison is only for violent and sexual offenders. There are about 16,000 vaguely sane people in our jails who have committed violent or sexual offences. They need to be banged up while they are rehabilitated, for however long it takes. But if they are crammed in with 64,000 others – the shoplifters and cannabis dealers – nobody gets any treatment and nobody gets any better.

Indeed, the evidence shows the opposite happens. Professor Carol Hedderman has calculated that the growth in the prison population is due to a huge rise in short sentences of six months or less. They are all for crimes that used to be dealt with by community service – like the two teenage boys in Deerbolt who have just been sentenced to 15 months in an adult jail for graffiti. That's long enough to put in place all the factors that drive up crime – they lose their job, their house and their girlfriend, and their debts spiral – but not long enough to teach them anything, even if we tried. This is the reason for the surge in reoffending.

Yet still the Government builds more mega-prisons, while the Tories yelp for them to go even further and faster. Why? Every politician wants to be seen as the Toughest Daddy, cheered on by a press that raves against a prison system that doesn't exist. But the "tough" approach – shove 'em in the toilets, teach 'em nothing – produces more crime. The macho swagger hides glass testicles. No: we need to show this isn't about soft vs. tough, but about smart, crime-busting policies vs. dumb, crime-boosting policies.

But for today, reason and evidence remain locked away in the prison toilets. Isn't it time we let them out?

1 comment:

Ahma Daeus said...

A “SINGLE VOICE PROJECT” is the official name of the petition sponsored by: The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP)


The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) is a grass roots organization driven by a single objective. We want the United States government to reclaim sole authority for state and federal prisons on US soil.
We want the United States Congress to immediately rescind all state and federal contracts that permit private prisons “for profit” to exist in the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction. We understand that the problems that currently plague our government, its criminal justice system and in particular, the state & federal bureau of prisons (and most correctional and rehabilitation facilities) are massive. However, it is our solemn belief that the solutions for prison reform will remain unattainable and virtually impossible as long as private prisons for profit are permitted to operate in America.

Prior to the past month, and the fiasco of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and now the “Big Three” American Automobile manufacturers, the NPSCTAPP has always felt compelled to highlight the “moral Bottom line” when it comes to corrections and privatization. Although, we remain confounded by the reality that our government has allowed our justice system to be operated by private interests. The NPSCTAPP philosophy has always been “justice” should not be for sale at any price. It is our belief that the inherent and most fundamental responsibility of the criminal justice system should not be shirked, or “jobbed-out.” This is not the same as privatizing the post office or some trash pick up service in the community. There has to be a loss of meaning and purpose when an inmate looks at a guard’s uniform and instead of seeing an emblem that reads State Department of Corrections or Federal Bureau of Prisons, he sees one that says: “Atlas Prison Corporation.”

Let’s assume that the real danger of privatization is not some innate inhumanity on the part of its practitioners but rather the added financial incentives that reward inhumanity. The same logic that motivates companies to operate prisons more efficiently also encourages them to cut corners at the expense of workers, prisoners and the public. Every penny they do not spend on food, medical care or training for guards is a dime they can pocket. What happens when the pennies pocketed are not enough for the shareholders? Who will bailout the private prison industry when they hold the government and the American people hostage with the threat of financial failure…“bankruptcy?” What was unimaginable a month ago merits serious consideration today. State and Federal prison programs originate from government design, and therefore, need to be maintained by the government. It’s time to restore the principles and the vacated promise of our judicial system.

John F. Kennedy said, “The time to repair the roof is while the sun is shinning”. Well the sun may not be shinning but, it’s not a bad time to begin repair on a dangerous roof that is certain to fall…. because, “Incarcerating people for profit is, in a word WRONG”

There is an urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of cynicism, indifference, apathy and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.
It is our hope that you will support the NPSCTAPP with a show of solidarity by signing our petition. We intend to assemble a collection of one million signatures, which will subsequently be attached to a proposition for consideration. This proposition will be presented to both, the Speaker Of The House Of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi) and the United States Congress.

Please Help Us. We Need Your Support. Help Us Spread The Word About This Monumental And Courageous Challenge To Create Positive Change. Place The Link To The Petition On Your Website! Pass It On!

The SINGLE VOICE PETITION and the effort to abolish private “for profit” prisons is the sole intent of NPSCTAPP. Our project does not contain any additional agendas. We have no solutions or suggestions regarding prison reform. However, we are unyielding in our belief that the answers to the many problems which currently plague this nation’s criminal justice system and its penal system in particular, cannot and will not be found within or assisted by the private “for profit” prison business. The private “for profit” prison business has a stranglehold on our criminal justice system. Its vice-like grip continues to choke the possibility of justice, fairness, and responsibility from both state and federal systems.
These new slave plantations are not the answer!

For more information please visit: or email:
To sign the petition please visit:


William Thomas
National Community Outreach Facilitator
The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons
P.O. Box 156423
San Francisco, California 94115