We need to think bigger than prisons

I doubt many would disagree that our prison system is seriously flawed on many levels. Whether your interest is in punitive retribution, prisoner rehabilitation, safety of inmates and staff, desistance or privatisation, it is clear that our prison system isn’t working and serious reform is urgently required. However, the prison is part of our criminal justice system and so for any prison reform to ‘work’, surely we need to think bigger, surely we can’t ever achieve a successful prison reform without first of all reforming our criminal justice system? The reason I argue this stems simply from the fact that it is a system,  defined as:

“a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2016)

Prisons cannot (and may I argue should not) work independently of the wider system in which they operate, so if we are to reform prisons, we should start with reforming our criminal justice system.


The first issue I want to address is ‘what is the purpose of prisons’? Now, I don’t intend to even attempt to suggest I have an answer to this and I most certainly don’t have the space to try and revisit all the scholarship in this area. It is a question that has been raised and debated for over a century, some of the earliest works  in Criminology, Philosophy and Law have all entered the tug of war of this question and each generation of penology scholars contribute to the debates. Is prison a place of punishment, is prison a place for rehabilitation, can prison ever do both. The problem with trying to answer this question is that many people take prisons for granted, the assumption that they are the norm for punishment and our job is to figure out their best purpose. If we are to speak of reform, it should, at the very least, apply to all mechanisms of “punishment” – curfew, community payback, fines, tagging and so on. Focussing all our attention on prison reform reinforces imprisonment as our dominant form of punishment, which in my opinion is wrong. I will be the first to agree that dangerous individuals need to be removed from society to prevent harm, but it is well known the term dangerousness is normally attributed the most violent offences, not always the most damaging or immoral. Our prisons are filled with individuals who are not violent or dangerous, yes they have done wrong, but prison does not ‘fix’ wrong-doing. In order for reforms to ensure a safe rehabilitative environment for those that occupy them, we need to ensure that we only incarcerate when absolutely necessary.

It calls itself a prison ‘service’ but who exactly it it serving, it certainly isn’t serving the needs of the individuals locked inside and with continuing high levels of re-offending, it isn’t servicing the safety of our communities. Prisons should aim to reform people to prevent reoffending, they should educate people to offer them a chance to reintegrate to society on release, they should rehabilitate people to help with substance misuse and they should, if nothing else, care. We need to care for prisoners’ well-being, they have had their liberty restricted, not their right to safety, health care and personal support. However, this cannot be achieved when our prisons are overcrowded with people serving short term sentences, women with severe mental health problems, individuals with drug addictions and young people lacking positive role models. At present our prisons are merely a warehousing of people with ‘social problems’, not an institution to ensure the safety of our streets and reform those most in need. Prisons cannot ever possibly manage to cope with the ever-growing demands placed upon them to tackle the magnitude of social problems coming through the gates. In what way does locking an individual suffering from drug addiction in a breeding ground for substance misuse help? How can mothers, struggling to cope with the demands of children whilst living in extreme poverty, possibly build those necessary relations with their children if they are denied access to them? How can young people escape the life of crime they have been brought up in if we lock them away with criminals? Common sense has completely gone out the window and has been replaced with capitalistic greed and social ignorance – sell the social problems to private prison organisations, hide it away from public view and pass the blame onto those locked away. No. We are to blame. Our society is to blame, our ‘system’ is to blame.


In order to undertake successful measures of reform in prisons, we must first of all put a stop to the number of people being sent to prison. Evidence has continually shown that alternatives are much more effective for tackling the underlying problems that lead people down a path of offending. Restoration and reparation, drug and alcohol support groups, work experience and educational programmes, social inclusion projects, the list goes on. Just because one person makes one mistake, doesn’t mean this should define them for the rest of their lives, we are all human, we all make mistakes. What is more important is how we respond to the unwanted behaviour, if crime is viewed as a social illness then surely prevention is better than cure? So how do we stop more people being sent to jail, well that’s a difficult question but not an impossible one. Firstly it requires law reforms; a review of sentencing options for courts, where prison is used for only those deemed too dangerous for our society. With the cost of prison places being in excess of £30,ooo per prisoner, in what way does it make sense to send someone to prison for failure to pay a £100 fine? The truth is the courts don’t know what to do. When they are presented with individuals with such complex social needs, they see no other option than imprisonment, leading to nothing more than a revolving door of incarceration for many young people in the UK. Secondly, we need more time, resources and attention being given to our most socially deprived communities, our most vulnerable members society and, importantly to our youth. I purposely use the word ‘our’ because this is our society and if we want a fairer, more equal society, then we all have a role to play. We need to rid the us and them attitude and realise we all contribute to the growing number of people being sent to prison and how we respond will ultimately impact on the future of our society.

We also need probation reforms, more care and attention being given to people resettling into their communities. Less focus should on the notion of risk and much more focus on the notion of need. ‘Offenders’ in the community need support, encouragement and inclusion, not surveillance and judgement. In line with this we need far greater resources to support people on community based sentences, the whole term national offender management service is problematic. A management service, not a support service, a rehabilitation service or even a monitoring service, their purpose is to manage and control. We need to get to the underlying issues, understand the individual and social factors that resulted in the undesirable behaviour and use resources more effectively to tackle these issues. Only then will community orders truly serve the needs of the communities and the needs of the individuals who have broken the law.

Please don’t take me as naive or ignorant, I well aware of the politics and economics of imprisonment, I know fine well that our prison ‘system’ at  present has very little to do with crime and more about control, profit and risk, all features of our late/post modern society. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to change, if we can stand up to the neoliberal approach and continue to provide unquestionable evidence for alternatives, then there is maybe a chance. I do hear and read many highly respected academics criticise our current system, but if I’m being honest I hear less on how to change things. Whilst acknowledging and highlighting flaws are important, they are worthless unless we can offer solutions, give the alternatives and show those in power they work. It’s not an easy task but for anything to change we must put our privileged status as academics to best use and you never know one day, just one day we could see a very different criminal justice system.

So let me return where I started, yes prisons need reforming but in order to achieve this we first must begin to look at the whole picture, or should I say the whole system, questioning not just the purpose of our prisons, but the purpose of our criminal justice system. If the same money time and resources was put into tackling our social problems then it is possible we could greatly reduce the number of people being incarcerated. In turn, those in prison would receive the care and rehabilitation necessary to help them reintegrate back in our communities. If I was sitting have a cup of tea with Liz Truss, this is exactly the conversation I would have, I would ask of her to take note of the issues that lead to imprisonment and rethink how our criminal justice system responds to this. The message from this is, stop putting our social problems behind bars and start realising these are our problems and we must find the solution, because it doesn’t lie behind prison walls.




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