Stir Crazy


A new prison has just been completed near where I live, on the site of an old psychiatric hospital. There is something remarkably symbolic and ominous about demolishing an asylum in order to put up a prison. Of course, the hospital didn’t close especially to make way for the prison (it had already become a victim of “care-in-the-community”), but the poignancy is undiminished. The unavoidable impression is that those who are dazed and confused in an incomprehensible world need not seek sanctuary, but should simply await retribution.

The philosophy of “detention” for offenders is one which is, at best, tenuous. It’s not just the incredible idea that incarcerating for long periods men and women who fall foul of the law, in a cramped and dehumanising environment, will result in them emerging as model citizens. No, there is something else which is even more incongruous about prisons. The paradox is, of course, that prisons house people, at great expense, against their will, while other “law-abiding” citizens are homeless. Those who behave themselves, follow the rules, and don’t attract the attention of the police, have no guarantee of a home; if you do get one, it’ll cost you an arm and a leg. But towards those who break the law, the state suddenly becomes very benevolent, and will give you not only a roof over your head but board too, for months or even years.

Prisons were originally conceived as places of “reform” and rehabilitation–in America they are often still referred to as “correctional” facilities–but for political and economic reasons the ethos rapidly changed to one of punishment and segregation. They are a relatively new idea, dating from the late eighteenth century, about the same time that capitalism first reared its ugly head. That is not to say that there were no sanctions employed against the dispossessed before that time; on the contrary, death and transportation were the sentences of choice, but juries were becoming reluctant to convict in capital cases and the ships bound for Australia were overflowing. With the concentration of workers in new towns and cities subordinate to the sanctity of private property, a more practical method of dealing with convicts was required. Thus, the prison was conceived.

Former Home Secretary Michael Howard, amongst others, insisted that prison works. This evaluation of course depends on what it sets out to achieve. If the intention is simply to punish the dispossessed for trying to gain a few more material goods, and act as a deterrent to potential offenders, then it could be said to be serving a purpose. However, the deterrent effect is questionable, because common-sense suggests that most criminals don’t imagine they will be caught, or they wouldn’t commit crimes in the first place. The likelihood of detection would surely be a greater deterrent. If, on the other hand, prisons are intended to rehabilitate offenders and reduce the incidence of crime, evidence shows they clearly do not work. Firstly, statistics reveal that once sent to prison, a person is far more likely to re-offend; and secondly, despite more people being imprisoned than ever before, the crime problem shows no signs of diminishing. The reason that politicians like Michael Howard, and even new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, continue to favour incarceration is that they are at a loss for solutions to the problem of crime, and there are always a few votes in “getting tough”.

Getting tough

What getting tough on crime has meant in the last decade or so is a nine percent increase in the prison population, and this is expected to continue rising from the current level of 51,000 inmates to almost 60,000 in 2004 (Home Office Statistical Bulletin, 4/96), although there is already talk of this figure being reached much sooner. As prisons are presently overcrowded, the building of several new ones will of course be necessary, financed entirely by central government. You’ll notice that there is no restriction on prison construction, unlike public housing. And when did you last hear of a prison being closed because it was no longer “economically viable”? Hospitals, of course, do not enjoy the same security. There is now even a prison ship, hastily imported because existing prisons are filling up quicker than new ones can be built. When prison ships begin weighing anchor and hauling their “cargo” off to the Antipodes, things will have gone full circle.

If Britain’s enthusiasm for locking up its citizens seems over-zealous, it is actually quite restrained compared with America, where building prisons is a major growth industry. Tougher drug laws and mandatory sentencing have combined to push up the number of inmates to almost 1.5 million, or 565 out of every 100,000 Americans (compared with about 100 in Britain). In California, spending on prisons has shot up from two percent to 10 percent of the state budget, and last year was more than expenditure on higher education. This at the same time as welfare benefits and health provision are being reduced. The US politicians have claimed that a fall in the crime rate in some areas is solely attributable to their lock-’em-up policies, but criminologists point out that other factors such as demographics and changing drug habits must also be taken into account. Even if the politicians are correct, there can only be one logical consequence of their strategy: virtually everyone will end up either an inmate in a prison, right down to those who don’t bring their library book back on time, or will be helping to run one.

If the idea of going to prison for something as trivial as failing to pay a fine seems unimaginable, then you may be surprised to discover that it is not an uncommon practice in Britain; over 22,000 people fell victim in 1994 alone. Here is another paradox, to add to the pile which accumulate around this subject. People who, for example, can’t afford a TV licence, are then fined more than the value of the licence which they couldn’t afford in the first place. When they fail to pay the fine, they end up in jail. And here’s the “double whammy” which would perplex even the Mad Hatter: the cost of imprisoning, say, a single mother for not buying a TV licence (yes, you with the blinkers on, they do put mothers of young children in prison) is likely to be forty times the cost of the licence. And they reckon that prison works?

What, then, does the convict learn from the experience of imprisonment? As illustrated above, for many the harsh lesson is that society is prepared to pay thousands of pounds to punish you, but not even a small fraction of that amount is forthcoming to prevent you turning to crime in the first place; in other words, punishing the poor for nothing more than their shortage of money. It is unlikely that many prisoners emerge from the experience with a more positive attitude to the iniquitous socio-economic system which first condemns them to a life of poverty, and then, when temptation gets the better of them, condemns them again to be punished. It’s no wonder that prison does little to discourage crime.

If all other things were equal, perhaps a case could be made for punishing transgressors, but as everyone knows, equality is not something that can be associated with capitalism. It’s bad enough that so many are trapped in a life of poverty, yet the arrogant pitiless free market has to constantly rub their noses in it. Conspicuous inequality is what leads the poor to try to obtain a little more by any means available. If politicians wanted to reduce crime within capitalism, they would establish a system to counsel, aid and attempt to rehabilitate offenders–alas, not politically popular and not many votes in it. On the other hand, if they were serious about eradicating crime, they would identify and attempt to remove the causes of crime. This, however, would raise questions about why we need private property, money, privilege, etc.–not likely to be tackled by most politicians, as the one thing they agree on is the continuance and support of a social system in which a minority owns most of the wealth and exploits the rest of us to maintain it.

The new Labour government, for all its claims to be “tough” on the causes of crime, is proving to be just as ready to cage people up in a way considered inhumane in zoos. Whichever side of the law you’re on, whether you’re in or out of jail, if you’re poor there is one sound-bite that will always ring true: Tough on you.

Nick Brunskill