Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, June 30, 2008

Mind-Forged Manacles

Crime is down, convictions are down, but the prisons are bursting. Why?

by George Monbiot

Published in the Guardian (June 24 2008)

Which of these countries has the most prisoners per head of population? Sudan, Syria, China, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe or England and Wales? We win, or rather lose: I have ranked these countries in reverse order {1}. On this measure, England and Wales have a more punitive judicial system than most of the world's dictatorships.

On Friday, the government released new figures for the prison population {2}. It broke all records, yet again. It has risen by 38% since Labour came to power {3}, and now stands at 83,181. What does the government intend to do about it? Lock more people up. It is building enough new cells to jail 96,000 people by 2014 {4}. At the beginning of this month it laid out its plans for Titan prisons: vast broiler units, which will each house 2,500 people {5}. But they'll be only just big enough: the government expects the number of cons to rise to 95,600 in six years {6}.

As ever, Britain appears to be chasing the United States. In both absolute and relative terms, the USA's prison population is the highest on earth: one percent of its adult population is behind bars{7}. This is five times our preposterous rate and six times Turkey's {8}. It is over twice the rate of the nearest contender, South Africa {9}. If you count the people under community supervision or on probation, the total rises to over 7 million, or 3.1% of the adult population {10}. Black men who failed to complete high school in the US have a sixty per cent chance of ending up in jail {11}. I feel I need to say that again: sixty per cent of unqualified black men go to prison. It's beginning to look as if the state has stopped imprisoning individuals and started locking up a social class. Is this what we aspire to?

To judge by the remonstrations of the tabloids, the answer is yes. But why? And why, in the United Kingdom, is imprisonment still rising? It's not because of rising crime. Last year crimes recorded by the police fell by two per cent, while the most serious violent offences fell by nine per cent {12}. Nor does it reflect the conviction rate. That fell by four per cent in 2006 (we don't yet have last year's figures) {13}. Stranger still, it is not connected to the rate of imprisonment either, which fell by nine per cent between 2004 and 2006 {14}.

The prison population is rising for one reason: people are being put away for longer {15}. Between 1997 and 2004, the average sentence rose from 15.7 months to 16.1 {16}. That tells only half the story: the actual time served rose as well, as a result of new laws the government introduced in 1998 and 2003 {17}. In 2004 the courts started handing down indeterminate sentences - prison terms without fixed limits. These will be partly responsible for the projected growth in imprisonment over the next six years {18}.

This exposes a remarkable contradiction in government policy. At the beginning of last year, the criminal justice ministers sent a begging letter to the courts asking them not to bang so many people up, as the prisons were bursting {19}. But they are bursting because of the mandatory life terms, indeterminate sentences and other stern measures it has forced the judges to pass. In 2002, England and Wales had more lifers (5268) than the whole of the rest of the EU put together (5046) {20}. I can't find a more recent comparison, and since the accession of the former communist states this is bound to have changed. But it gives you a rough idea of how weird this country is.

So why, when the number of crimes, especially serious violent crimes, is falling, are both the government and the courts imposing longer sentences? Why does the UK consistently rank in the top two places for imprisonment in western Europe? Why, as this country becomes more peacable, does it become more punitive? I don't know. Nor, it seems, does anyone else. But one thing I've noticed is that many of the states with the highest number of convicts are also those with the greatest differential between rich and poor. Within the OECD nations, the US has the second highest rate of inequality. Mexico, which is the most unequal, has the third-highest rate of imprisonment. In the EU, four of the five most unequal nations also rank among the top five jailers{21}. The correlation, though by no means exact, seems to apply across many of the rich countries.

This doesn't demonstrate a causal relationship. But there are three likely connections. The first is that inequality causes crime. This is what Anatole France referred to, when he claimed to admire "the majestic egalitarianism of the law, which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread" {22}. But, while this has proved true at most times and in most places, crime is falling in England and Wales while inequality is rising. The second possible link is that prison causes inequality. The sociologist Bruce Western has shown that jail in the United States is a huge and hidden cause of deprivation {23}. When people are locked up, they can't acquire the skills and social contacts they need to get on outside. Employers are reluctant to take them on when they've been released, and they tend to be hired by the day or to get stuck in the casual economy, which is one of the reasons why so many return to crime. Among whites and Hispanics, wages for ex-cons are severely depressed. Among black people the effect is less marked: the "stigma of imprisonment", Western suggests, appears to have stuck to the entire black underclass {24}.

His ground-breaking research shows that US labour figures, which appeared to prove that the rising tide of the 1990s lifted all boats, were hopelessly skewed. The government's claim that the boom had enhanced everyone's job prospects - even those at the bottom of the heap - turns out to be an artefact of rising imprisonment: convicts aren't counted in household surveys. Western found that while general unemployment fell sharply in the 1990s, when prisoners were included, the rate among unqualified young black men rose to its highest level ever: a gobsmacking 65% {25}.

The third possible reason for a link between the two factors is that inequality causes imprisonment. I can't prove this, and it is hard to see how anyone could do so. But my untested hypothesis runs as follows: the greater the wealth the top echelons accrue, the more ferociously they demand protection from the rest of society. They have more to lose from crime and less to lose from punishment, which is less likely to strike the richer you become. The people who help to generate the public demand for long prison terms (newspaper proprietors and editors) and the people who mete it out (judges and magistrates) are drawn overwhelmingly from the property-owning classes. "Those who have built large fortunes", Max Hastings, who was once the editor of the Daily Telegraph, wrote of his former employer Conrad Black, "seldom lose their nervousness that some ill-wisher will find means to take their money away from them" {26}. Money breeds paranoia, and paranoia keeps people in prison.


1. King's College, London, 2008. World Prison Brief.

2. BBC Online, 20th June 2008. Prison population at record high.

3. National Statistics Office, viewed 23rd June 2008. Prison population: England and Wales.

4. Ministry of Justice, 1st February 2008. Minister opens first prison in government building programme. Press release.

5. Ministry of Justice, 5th June 2008. Titan prisons. Consultation Paper CP10/08.

6. Ministry of Justice, August 2007. Prison Population Projections 2007-2014. England and Wales.

7. Sky News, 29th February 2008. US Prison Population Reaches World High.,,30200-1307500,00.html

8. The US rate per 100,000 people is 751. UK: 152, Turkey: 127. King's College, ibid.

9. 347 per 100,000.

10. Bruce Western, 22nd June 2007. Mass Imprisonment and Economic Inequality - III. Who we Punish: the Carceral State.

11. ibid.

12. Home Office, July 2007. Crime in England and Wales 2006/07. Statistical Bulletin.

13. Ministry of Justice, November 2007. Criminal Statistics 2006: England and Wales.

14. ibid, Table 1.2.

15. Ministry of Justice, August 2007, ibid.

16. ibid.

17. The Ministry of Justice, August 2007, ibid, lists these factors as follows:
* greater numbers of offenders recalled to prison for breaking the conditions of
their licence, reflecting legislative changes in 1998 and 2003;
* increased use of indeterminate sentences following the introduction of
Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection (IPPs) in April 2005;
* the introduction of Suspended Sentence Orders in April 2005 for which
offenders in breach can be taken into custody; and
* inflation in the time certain types of offender remain in prison (particularly in
recent years) as the use of Home Detention Curfew for the early release of
offenders has diminished and the parole rate has fallen.

18. The Ministry of Justice, August 2007, ibid, states that "Much of the underlying growth in the High, Medium and Low scenarios can therefore be attributed to the use of IPP (Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection) sentences.

19. Ministry of Justice, 23rd January 2007. Statement from the Criminal Justice Ministers to the National Criminal Justice Board: Managing the Impact of Rapid Growth in the Prison Population.

20. Prison Reform Trust, March 2004. England and Wales, Europe's lifer capital.

21. I took the inequality stats (as measured by the Gini Coefficient) from the CIA's World Factbook:

22. Anatole France, 1894. The Red Lily.

23. Bruce Western, August 2002. The Impact of Incarceration on Wage Mobility and Inequality. American Sociological Review. Vol 67, No 4, pages 526-546.

24. ibid.

25. Bruce Western, 22nd June 2007. Mass Imprisonment and Economic Inequality - III. Who we Punish: the Carceral State.

26. Max Hastings, 2002. Editor: An Inside Story of Newspapers. Macmillan, London.

Bill Totten


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