After the riots: is prison reform still possible?
The riot at The Mount prison in Hertfordshire was the third major riot in a UK prison in less than a year. Last winter, over a three-week period, riots involving inmates at Birmingham, Moorland, Bedford and Lewis prisons hit national headlines. These episodes once again brought attention to the prison crisis in the UK. After successive justice secretaries have made sweeping cuts, many wonder if violence in prison will become the new norm.
The riots marked the culmination of many concerns about the state of our prisons. The presence of synthetic drugs, drug-smuggling drones, increasing violence statistics and rising suicide rates point to a pressure cooker atmosphere inside UK jails. While crime rates have continuously fallen over the last 20 years, the prison population has doubled, making the state of UK prisons a mainstream concern. There are issues of overcrowding, underfunding, the presence of drugs and gangs, concerns that the smoking ban may unsettle prisoners and the threat of extremists targeting vulnerable individuals on the inside – all of which highlight how prisons are a growing problem without a simple solution.
Some commentators bemoan the fact that the prison reform agenda laid out during Michael Gove’s spell as justice secretary has seemingly been abandoned and that to solve the crisis of UK prisons we need big ideas and a new approach to incarceration similar to that of Scandinavian countries. In this view, prison should be a ‘second chance’ focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Others call for more practical solutions including more money, fewer people in prison, better-trained staff, drug treatment orders and changes to sentencing guidelines, arguing that prisons must function in a stable way before we can contemplate the luxury of expensive rehabilitation.
Perhaps it is time to ask what prison is for and who should be there. Should prison predominantly be to punish people for their crimes or is it a chance to reflect on what you have done wrong, gain new skills, and leave as a reformed citizen? What sort of offence deserves a custodial sentence? Does the public even care about life and conditions inside or do they simply want criminals off the streets? Is austerity to blame for the riots and increasing violence? How can we save our prisons?