With close to 85,000 people currently incarcerated in the UK and a further 85,641 awaiting deportation in Immigration Removal Centres across the country, Cameron’s recent proposals to reform the prison system may come as a welcome, if surprising, relief from a so far brutal and relentless governance over our institutions.
However, with the current crisis of overcrowding, numerous reports of abuse and misconduct by correctional staff as well as a vast over-representation of minorities within the system, are Cameron’s proposals really enough to save us from the Dickensian—indeed American—system we seem so inevitably destined to revert to?
In his address to London-based think tank Policy Exchange, the Prime Minister outlined a number of plans intending to do just that. Perhaps as a surprise to many—given our current government’s already large number of austerity measures—one of the proposals was of a promise to protect the budget dedicated to the creation of various educational programs designed to aid in the rehabilitation of those serving sentences.
Such a budget is ostensibly necessary. As Cameron himself notes, “we need prisons”, and indeed we need the aspects of such prisons that allow for offenders to use their time productively in the hopes of leading a normal life after being released. However, with cuts to the budget already reaching £900 million in the past 5 years, is such a promise of protection going to be enough?
According to inmate charity The Clink—an organisation dedicated to offering various forms of training, support and eventual employment to offenders during and after their time in prison—the short answer is no. With the charity reporting a rate of repeat offences amongst those who do not have access to training at 45.2 per cent—along with the need for non-governmental involvement in such training—it becomes evident that there is nowhere near a sufficient amount being spent on rehabilitation. Protection of this already poor budget is going to do little to improve such statistics.
Beyond the budgetary concerns of prison programmes, what Cameron and his appointed “man for the job” Michael Gove are undeniably overlooking is the fact that the cycle of offending and reoffending do not start within the prison walls themselves. Never a fan of true social reform, Cameron has again ignored the underlying reasons behind this problem—focusing solely on reforming the prison system. This is a needed reform yes, but also an undeniably small drop in the ocean that is our country’s criminality.
With, for example, The Guardian reporting that cuts to benefits and tax credits will have adversely affected over 330,000 children in the UK throughout last year, we have to wonder whether reforms to the prison system are even worth considering. This perpetuation of poverty and low social mobility that has led many to commit certain criminal offences, is so often overlooked and maybe even encouraged by governmental budgetary changes.
Of course, this isn’t the case for all offenders. Again, echoing Cameron’s address, it’s indisputable that the likes of murderers, rapists and child abusers deserve the punishment that serving time in prison brings, and I am fully aware of the indispensable role prisons play in punishing those types of crimes. However, with the second largest offence represented in our prison system being related to the use and supply of drugs, we must surely consider the underlying societal issues that create an atmosphere in which many see the only option as crime.
Nevertheless, we must also not forget that it is a Conservative government proposing such reforms. Perhaps with this in mind, it is too much to ask to take preventative measures; after all, why prevent a problem where—once existent—a select few can financially benefit? Amidst an already rampant, yet unnervingly quiet, privatisation of our prison system, another one of Cameron’s plans involve the handing over of more budgetary power to governors and managerial staff. With a sharp increase in misconduct since the employment of companies such as G4S, we must again wonder how such de-centralisation is really beneficial, and what these reforms truly aim to achieve.
Prisons are undoubtedly essential, it is their role to punish those who have deviated from what society deems acceptable. What is also essential, however, is a system that works. Currently, we cannot deny that such a system does not exist within the UK. Reoffending statistics prove this, as do the multiple and ever-increasing number of suicides committed in the confines of our 150 institutions. Reform is needed, and it is needed before we create an insurmountable crisis of incarceration similar to that seen in the US.
Such reform unfortunately does not come in the form of Cameron’s suggestions. Yes, a protection of the budget seems to only be a positive thing. However, if this budget is already failing in its abilities to deliver what it is intended, then what is there to protect?
This is a system that cannot be fixed with mere financial promises and further privatisation, it is a system that needs to be fixed through the reduction of the factors that lead people to be a part of it. Until Cameron can deliver truly progressive changes outside of the tall walls of the UK’s prisons, we will see little change to what occurs within them.
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