But imprisonment is often an expensive waste of talent and economic productivity. It can undermine prisoners’ ability to find housing or employment following their release, contribute to relationship or family breakdown, or addiction problems, and so increase the possibility of reoffence following release.
The US and China have the biggest prison populations: there are 2.1 million people in prison in the US and 1.6 million in China. Brazil and Russia both have more than 600,000 people in custody, India has 400,000 and six other countries have more than 200,000 (see statistics below). Looking at numbers without detailed consideration of the circumstances in each country is a crude way to compare justice systems, but there has been no marked increase in crime in countries where the prison population has fallen in recent years.
One country where this is the case is the Netherlands. Its prison population has shrunk significantly since 2006, thanks to increased use of community service, fines and electronic tagging instead of custodial sentences. There are now maximum sentences for many crimes, no minimum sentences and life imprisonment is rare. Increased use of electronic tagging has allowed offenders to work while serving their sentences, helping to reduce reoffending rates.
This is not to suggest that the Dutch system is perfect: as is the case in many countries, people from minority ethnic backgrounds are over-represented in the prison population. There is also a high rate of pre-trial detention – almost a third (30%) of the prison population are awaiting trial (compared to about 11% in England and Wales, for example). But the system now has enough spare capacity to house prisoners for neighbouring countries, and 25 prisons in the Netherlands have been closed since 2013. One former prison has even been turned into a hotel – the Het Arresthuis (“House Arrest”), in Roermond, near Amsterdam.
In other countries, a different approach has led to very different outcomes. In Brazil, a police and judicial clampdown on tackling drugs offences, a lack of access to legal representation and an unusually high level of pre-trial imprisonment have contributed to creating one of the largest prison populations in the world, housed in badly overcrowded, neglected facilities, with disastrous results. In the first fortnight of 2017 alone more than 125 prisoners were killed in five separate prison riots in Brazil, caused in part by shortages of food, bedding and staff.
In many countries prison overcrowding has become so endemic that governments are being forced to act. In Nigeria, with up to 100 prisoners sharing the same room overnight in some cases, the government has introduced a new law that would enable community service sentences to be passed as an alternative to custodial sentences for a wide range of offences. A similar initiative is underway in Cambodia.
Globally, it is thought that about 18% of prison sentences are linked to narcotics. That figure is particularly high in Thailand, which imprisons 455 people per 100,000, about 70% of whom are drug offenders. Its prisons currently hold more than double the number of people for which they were designed, with a 224% occupancy rate, according to figures from the International Federation for Human Rights.
Overcrowding within prisons in England and Wales is not so severe, but some individual prisons are dangerously overcrowded. Together with an ongoing shortage of prison officers, this has caused serious problems, particularly when prisoners spend prolonged periods locked in their cells. Rioting broke out at HMP The Mount in Hertfordshire in July 2017 after prisoners had been locked in their cells for three successive weekends. Other incidents of unrest included a spectacular riot at HMP Birmingham, managed by private company G4S, in December 2016, when 500 prisoners caused £1.7m worth of damage.
In the UK, successive governments have taken a tough approach to law enforcement during the past 25 years and this had a strong influence on sentencing. Professor Mike Nellis, Emeritus Professor of criminal and community justice in the law school at the University of Strathclyde, thinks it is ironic that the UK prison population is so high, because there have often been a broader range of alternatives to custody available in the UK than in other European countries with lower imprisonment rates.
“The UK government has increased community sentences, but without any strategic commitment to reducing numbers in prison,” he says. “In most countries in Europe there is, if not a commitment to reduce the prison population, at least a policy to maintain it at roughly the same level.”
Between 1993 and 2012, the prison population in England and Wales doubled, from around 44,000 to 87,000. This coincided with a fall in reported crime, but crime also fell in countries with very different prison policies.
Nellis believes there is a striking difference between the approach taken in the UK to that seen in, for example, Scandinavian countries. “Those countries have a manageable system of alternatives to custody, backed up by a strong welfare system,” he says, noting in particular the value of services that help ex-offenders to find employment and housing, along with additional support for the families of ex-prisoners.
Those campaigning for reform of the UK system have found little succour in recent UK government policy. The tenure of Chris Grayling as justice secretary between 2012 and 2015 has been criticised by many observers. He increased sentences for some offences and introduced a benchmarking programme that forced public sector prisons to reduce operating costs to match those of comparable privately-run prisons (there are very few of these in the UK). Reformers argue that these were largely false economies.
In 2016 the UK government announced a £1.3bn plan for further investment, including plans for four huge new prisons, but it is not currently clear if or when these plans will come to fruition – and reformers argue that building more prisons is not the right policy anyway. The government also drafted a new Prison and Courts Bill, but this had not yet completed its journey towards Royal Assent before Parliament was dissolved for the 2017 General Election and was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech after the election.
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League, expresses frustration that further progress is now likely to be delayed indefinitely by the UK government’s focus on Brexit. “The financial case for doing things differently is there in the state of the prisons,” he says.
One previous policy that it was hoped might help to ease the pressure on the UK system and improve its cost-effectiveness was its partial privatisation, which began in the 1990s. Ross Campbell, director for the public sector at ICAEW, suggests that by then the argument in favour of working with the private sector was particularly strong because of the need to replace Victorian prisons. Private investment enabled the construction of some new facilities. Most were built using Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts, now generally regarded as having represented poor value to the taxpayer. Nonetheless, says Campbell, “if privatisation brought in a refresh of premises and operating practices that’s got to be a positive thing”.
But the spread of privatisation now appears to have stopped, in part as a result of Grayling’s benchmarking initiative, which has made it harder for a private company to take over a state prison. The outcome-based incentive system upon which many contracts are based, Payment by Results (PbR), has been criticised, despite government claims that it has helped to reduce reoffending rates.
Three private sector companies – G4S, Serco and Sodexo – operate 14 prisons between them in England and Wales, and two in Scotland. The public sector runs 114 in England and Wales, 13 in Scotland and the four prisons in Northern Ireland.
Julia Rogers is managing director for justice and immigration at Serco, which runs five prisons in England and one in Scotland. She claims the private sector has introduced useful innovations, such as in-cell telephones and self-service systems that prisoners can use to buy food from the prison shop and to schedule visits or medical appointments. “We’re using technology to empower them to take control of their own lives,” says Rogers. “It will help to prepare them for life after they leave prison, in a world where digital technology has taken over.” She hopes the private sector will be able to increase its participation in the UK prisons sector in future, but admits this is far from certain.
In some countries, the prison system is supported by the work of charities and some businesses, which help to offer education, training and employment opportunities to prisoners and former inmates. Examples in the UK include Bounce Back, which offers ex-offenders access to training and employment opportunities; and The Clink, which runs restaurants staffed by prisoners within four prisons, providing high quality training to inmates.
Roast, a restaurant based in Borough Market, south London, is one of a growing number of businesses that benefit from offering employment and work experience opportunities to ex-offenders and prisoners. Its founder, Iqbal Wahhab, campaigns to try to persuade businesses and government to work together more closely, to tap into what could be an extremely valuable source of employees. He has lobbied successive ministers to increase resources to enable similar initiatives, stressing the economic benefits. “The humanitarian arguments have been made, but we can also make a good economic case,” he says.
That case is also being made by reformers in many other countries around the world, including in the US. A huge expansion in its prison population since 1980 (when there were about 500,000 Americans in jail) was largely due to policy decisions including the so-called War on Drugs – drug-related offences accounted for almost one third of all admissions to US prisons between 1993 and 2009.
The sheer size of the system means some stakeholders now arguably have less of an incentive to reduce the prison population. The private companies running a small number of US prisons are among them, but a January 2017 study published by the Prison Policy Initiative in the US revealed that the amount of money those companies take out of the system is dwarfed by money paid to financial, healthcare, utilities and telecommunications service providers, to construction companies and to local government – and in wages to thousands of employees.
Ultimately, prison reform campaigners across the world want to see a more co-ordinated approach to crime and justice, incorporating preventative measures. Policy needs to be integrated with social work, youth work and social care, says Richard Garside, director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in the UK. He believes reducing prison populations is the key to reform. “This has to be about stopping the flow into the system, or significantly reducing it,” he says. “But we also need to see the justice process within a broader view of the kind of society we want to live in.”
Wherever you happen to be on the political spectrum, it is hard to deny the potential benefits to be gained from using a less wasteful way of dispensing justice than simply locking up millions of people.
Businesses and charities can help move towards that goal, but as Jo Owen, social entrepreneur and former chair of the UK charity Startup, which helps ex-offenders start businesses, notes: “Prisons are always about the lowest priority of any government until they go catastrophically wrong.” While that remains the case, prisons and justice systems will continue to damage individuals, their families and communities and economic growth all over the world.
Global prison populations:US: 2,145,100
Russian Federation: 613,075
England & Wales: 86,256
Northern Ireland: 1,436
Imprisonment per 100,000 population:Seychelles: 738
El Salvador: 595
US Virgin Islands: 542
England & Wales: 146
Northern Ireland: 76
Population figures: prisonstudies.org