Mentally ill and record number of children locked up
UK: The departing head of the prison and probation service has launched a scathing attack on Britain's penal system, expressing his deep concern that a record number of prisoners are behind bars when the crime rate is falling.
Martin Narey, a civil servant who has served every Home Secretary since 1989, highlights statistics showing that thousands of mentally ill inmates and a record number of children now constitute a significant part of the prison population.
'As I leave, I cannot pretend to be other than dismayed at a prison population now heading towards 78,000,' writes Narey, who quit this month as permanent secretary at the National Offender Management Service, the combined prison and probation service.
'With such pressures on prisons, and even after the investment they have received, the numbers locked up often overwhelm regimes. Overcrowding condemns about 16,000 prisoners every day to conditions - sharing a toilet in a cell in which they also eat their food - which are simply gross,' Narey says in an article to be published in December. 'And the problem is not only numbers or the consequent overcrowding. Within the 77,500 we are locking up right now are about 5,000 people who are profoundly mentally ill.'
The damning comments - written for the December issue of HLM, the magazine of the Howard League for Penal Reform - come at a critical time for the prison service. Reformers claim that Britain's jails have only around 400 spaces left before they are full to capacity and express fears about the consequences for prisoners.
The problem has prompted the Home Office to consider radical options to relieve congestion, including recommissioning the floating prison ship, HMP Weare, which was closed after extensive criticism. Other proposals being considered by the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, could include early release of up to 700 offenders, greater use of electronic tagging and converting women's jails - which still have some capacity - to house men. In addition, a building programme is predicted to boost the total number of prison places to 80,400 by 2007. Since 1995 the UK prison population has increased by 51 per cent, and the numbers have risen by 17,160 since Labour gained power.
Narey, who is the new head of the children's charity Barnardo's, says the rise is impossible to justify: 'Crime has been falling for some years. Some crime, burglary for instance, has fallen very significantly indeed.
'So there is simply no need for us to incarcerate the numbers we do. And in particular, there is no need for us to lock away 3,000 children... and because there are so many we have not been able to make children's custody the safe and constructive environment which it could be.'
Narey's concerns about the children were echoed in the House of Lords last week by the Bishop of Leicester, the Right Reverend Timothy Stevens. 'The vulnerability of the young people in prison service custody has been well documented,' he said. 'Some 60 per cent have previously been looked after by a local authority; 85 per cent exhibit signs of personality disorder; and 25 per cent of males have suffered violence at home.'
The Howard League says the most overcrowded prisons are also those with most suicides. A quarter of jails account for more than half of all suicides. 'Overcrowding is the canker at the heart of the system,' said Frances Crook, its director. 'This government has been sleepwalking to a crisis. There are signs Charles Clarke is beginning to wake up to the seriousness of it, but the government has to develop alternatives to prison.'
A Home Office spokesman said it was spreading innovative sentencing strategies to ease the pressures and keeping the prison population under continuous review.
By Jamie Doward posted 24 October 05
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All the World's a Prison: History No doubt many of my readers, even those who are well-educated or widely read, think that the prison -- the place where dark deeds are darkly answered -- is an ancient institution, a barbaric hold-over from barbaric times. In fact, the prison is of relatively recent origin, and this tells us a great deal about the pretentions and realities of modern times, and the wisdom and high degree of development of the ancients.
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