Prior to 1997, crime had fallen in the UK for four years in a row. But in the past four years, the prison population has soared by 6,000 to more than 66,000. Thirty-six jails now have more than 100 inmates “doubled up” in single cells. Reform groups argue that no extra criminals have been caught; instead the courts are giving longer sentences, reflecting ministers’ tough rhetoric.
However, the government still faces accusations that it is soft on crime. The latest Home Office figures show overall crime dropped by a negligible 0.2% in the 12 months to September 2000, while headline-grabbing violent crime rose by 8%.
Home secretary, Jack Straw, unveiled the government’s new 10-year crime strategy in February, which includes plans for an extra 2,660 prison places and the commitment to longer prison sentences for persistent offenders. Judges will have more scope to consider offenders’ previous convictions when passing sentences.
A third of the £700m programme will be spent on rehabilitation, with supervised community schemes replacing short-term prison sentences. On release, prisoners will be offered better drug treatment, education, and help with jobs and housing.
Whether Mr Straw’s plans to see more offenders serving most of their sentence in the community will work, remains to be seen. But some prison officers fear this will lead to more prison violence. They warn that the introduction of similar detention and training orders (DTOs) for juvenile offenders, prohibiting staff from adding extra days as a punishment, could lead to a collapse in discipline.
Thousands of prisoners already serve the last weeks of their sentences at home with an electronic tag. Despite the Conservatives’ attacks on the scheme, it has so far proved effective, with 96% successfully completing their sentences.
There have already been significant efforts to improve standards in Britain’s prisons. The government has funded the biggest ever literacy and numeracy drive for inmates and more than 50 prisons now run drug treatment programmes. Schemes to tackle the criminal behaviour of inmates also claim to have cut the reconviction rate by one-third.
The director-general of the prison service, Martin Narey, has also presided over the first real attempt to root out corruption and brutality. Nearly 100 prison officers are currently suspended pending investigations, and racism is finally on the agenda.
Nevertheless there have been a catalogue of damning reports on Britain’s prisons. In February, Mr Narey named six jails as “hellholes” and warned he would quit his job unless conditions throughout England and Wales improved.
The chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, has called for the closure of several young offendersÍ institutions, following investigations that revealed serious problems with bullying, racism and suicide.