It's time to rethink our use of prisons

Wednesday 27-09-2017 - 14:04

With ill-thought prison expansion on the Tories' minds, Jess Bradley outlines why it's time to rethink them and what students can do about it.  

The Conservative Government are currently undergoing a vast programme of prison expansion, with four mega-prisons and five ‘community’ prisons either under construction, working themselves through the planning system, or otherwise under proposal. With the cost of new prison places standing at £119,000, and the cost of housing an individual prisoner being in excess of £40,000 per year thereafter, prison expansion is an expensive project.

Prison justice is not only expensive, it is also deeply inefficient at rehabilitating people. With re-offending rates on release sky-high, the prison system’s main function seems to be in traumatising inmates, rather than giving them the skills and opportunities to return to society in a better place than they were before the sentence was given out. The new prisons, though, will have an extra function. Built with a capacity for about 1000-1500 inmates, they are centred around factories where prisoners will earn on average £10 to £15 for a week’s work, exploiting prisoner’s labour, vastly undercutting the wages of working folk on the outside, and offering little in terms of rehabilitation to prisoners.  

With the highest prison population in Western Europe, in addition to other forms of incarceration like detention centres and Young Offenders Institutes, the UK prison system is already huge. Those arguing for prison expansion rightly point out that our prison system is full to bursting, but their solution is to undergo an expensive campaign of prison construction at a time when they are also arguing there is no money for schools and hospitals. When there are significant numbers of working class people incarcerated for nonviolent offences, some just for not paying their TV licences, as well as for unfair sentences like Joint Enterprise and Imprisonment for Public Protection, there seems to be a better answer to prison overcrowding: letting people out of prison.

Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) is a prison sentence composed of a tariff (minimum sentence) followed by an indefinite period of incarceration until the Parole Board is satisfied that a person is safe to be let outside. Originally implemented in 2005, IPP sentences were to be for the most dangerous criminals, yet with an average tariff of 18-36 months and with many IPP prisoners charged with non-violent offences, the sentence was widely used for less serious crimes than the architects of the scheme intended.

The IPP sentence as a measure was considered deeply flawed and was abolished in 2012. However, individual IPP sentences were not retroactively changed, at the time leaving about 6000 IPP prisoners behind bars. Today, there are somewhere between 3000 and 4000 IPP prisoners in UK prisons, 80% of whom have served their original tariff. Releasing those IPP prisoners who have already served their original tariffs would provide prison spaces equivalent to at least two of the proposed mega-prisons. But in order to be released, they must attend educational and behavioural courses. However, not all prisons offer the courses, and due to logistical problems, cuts, and other bureaucracy, IPP prisoners are waiting months, sometimes even years to be enrolled on these courses or even transferred to a prison where they can be enrolled.

What this means is that IPP prisoners are left in limbo, trapped in the cruel uncertainty of system which doesn’t prioritise their rehabilitation. Two weeks ago, I hung out with Ian Hartley’s family. Ian is 12 years into a sentence with an original tariff of 3 years and 2 months. The uncertainty of his release date has paid a heavy price on Ian’s mental health, in a recent letter he said: “I don’t live, I exist in this life... I may be headstrong but I honestly don’t know how long I can carry on like this”. From talking to IPP prisoners, their families, and organisations that work with IPP prisoners, it is clear that suicide, self-harm, and other mental health problems are much more prevalent among IPP prisoners. And that impact doesn’t stop with the prisoner alone; the cost of IPP sentences are also borne out by their family, friends, and community who also have to live with the insecurity and uncertainty of a cruel and unusual punishment.

As students, we know the power of education in transforming lives; it can give us skills, confidence, and opportunities to improve ourselves and the world around us. Education is a key driver for success in rehabilitation work, but prisoner education remains underfunded, of variable quality, and mired with huge barriers to access. The human impact of poor education quality and opportunity comes into sharp focus when you consider the hundreds of IPP prisoners languishing behind bars, primarily because of lack of access to education and behaviour courses.

As a movement, we can do more to show solidarity with our fellow students on the inside; by supporting calls for a moratorium on prison expansion and the immediate release of IPP prisoners who have served their original tariff. As a union, we know the power of collective organising and how it can transform education and transform lives. And as grassroots activists, individual students’ unions, and as a national union, we should be calling for the dropping of restrictive rules around prisoner organising, so students on the inside can organise openly for their own rights to education.  

Jess Bradley, NUS Trans Officer



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