Lock them up or set them free: Boris and British prisons

Lock them up or set them free: Boris and British prisons

An early mantra for Trump’s 2020 presidential election campaign has already made its mark at Republican rallies. The antithesis of woke, Donald supporters now break into a chilling new chant: “Send her back!” The object of their vilification is Somali-born Ilhan Omar, who serves as a congressional democrat in Minnesota. It echoes the 2016 campaign when Trump put considerable effort into attacking Hillary Clinton, prompting numerous “Lock her up!” chants.

A crude theme common to both chants can be summarised by the sentiment: get these people off our streets and out of our communities. It finds an echo in the US criminal justice system where locking people up is the norm. Prison has long been the automatic US response to crime with drug offences accounting for the incarceration of almost half a million people, roughly 20 per cent of the current total.

In aggregate, almost 2.3 million citizens are now locked up in America’s jails and prisons, roughly double the figure of a generation ago. That number had steadily increased: in 1980, it eclipsed half a million before surpassing the million mark by 1990. But President Clinton’s endorsement of the three-strikes laws, first implemented in March 1994, dramatically fuelled the punishment of those convicted of more than two serious crimes. By 2000, US prisoner numbers had surpassed two million, and despite some modest recent decline, they have stayed there ever since.

Although our prison population is proportionately much smaller, the UK had experienced a more gradual increase. The first half of the twentieth century saw prisoner numbers ranging between 15,000 and 25,000. The total only started to swell in the 1960s and has risen ever since to just over 43,000 in 1980 – a figure which grew modestly to 45,500 by 1990.

The 1990s provided a paradigm shift in which the growth in UK prisoners mirrored the US: 1995 – 51,000 and 2000 – 64,500. Tony Blair’s much-repeated slogan – Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime – was both populist and popular. The practical result was that prisons became full to bursting. Over the subsequent decade, the numbers grew inexorably every year, reaching 85,000 by 2010. Today, the figure has plateaued just below this figure: at 82,780 according to the latest published data.   

Enjoying a reputation as a hardliner on crime and punishment, Priti Patel is Home Secretary in the new Conservative government. An avowed supporter of the death penalty in 2011 “to serve as a deterrent” – a position she reversed in 2016 – Patel had been given the key task of restoring the Conservatives’ reputation as the party of law and order. Against a background of rising violent crime, including increases in both murder and knife crime, Boris Johnson believes that action is needed to reverse these trends.

So will the reversal of a 20,000 decline in police numbers since 2010 be matched by growth in the number of convictions for serious offences and a further concomitant increase in the prison population?

As Minister for Prisons from January 2018 to May 2019, Rory Stewart had pledged both to improve prisons and reduce the prison population. Last August, he announced the launch of the Ten Prisons Project designed to reduce violence in prisons. The results were impressive: reductions in violence were reported within six months of the project’s launch.

As far back as 2010, the then Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, had pledged to cut the 85,000 daily prison population in England and Wales by 3,000 within four years. In the end, it took eight, but it was achieved. Clarke also promised “a rehabilitation revolution” that would “stem the unsustainable rise in the UK prison population”.

The liberal voices of Clarke and Stewart form no part of Johnson’s government. ‘Rehabilitation revolution’ is not a term likely to fall easily from the lips of Johnson or Patel. But some may draw comfort from the appointment of the new Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland QC MP. Indeed, his predecessor David Gauke tweeted: ‘This is a good appointment. Not a solicitor, merely a barrister, but this will go down well.’  

Buckland is a rara avis in the new cabinet: a staunch remainer over the Brexit issue, his views on prison reform are thought to coincide with Clarke, Gauke and Stewart – i.e. at the liberal end of the spectrum. Given the impetus to appoint 20,000 new police officers within three years, both as a deterrent and to catch more criminals, the number of convictions seems bound to rise.

In his last major speech on justice reform in February, Gauke spoke about the ‘need to look beyond prison, move away from short custodial sentences and towards more effective alternatives in the community that better target the causes of offending.’

This echoes the second part of Blair’s ‘tough on the causes of crime’ slogan. But the language emerging so far from Patel focuses only on the first part – the ‘tough on crime’ bit – with no reference to the causes. Unless there is a distinct shift in sentencing policy, the natural corollary will be more British prisoners rather than less.  

In his last speech in July, Gauke said: ‘Whilst long prison sentences will always be right for those who commit the most serious crimes, particularly of a violent or sexual nature, the fact is that the vast majority of all offenders will at some point be released. Most people who go to prison are there for a matter of months or weeks. Last year, for example, sentences of 12 months or less accounted for over two thirds of all immediate custodial sentences.’

He argued that the public ‘expect the justice system to focus on rehabilitation to reduce the risk of subsequent offending – and the likelihood of them becoming a victim of crime.’ Gauke added: ‘The latest evidence suggests that if all offenders who currently receive prison sentences of less than six months were given a community order instead, we estimate that there would be around 32,000 fewer proven reoffences a year.’

Gauke believed that moving away from prison sentences up to six months would deliver ‘real and positive change, for the offenders to turn their lives around and for the safety of the public.’

This final speech forms part of May’s legacy to Johnson. But if one looks at how other aspects of her government have been instantly jettisoned – both policies and personnel – then we can reasonably expect an equally dramatic volte face on the prison issue.

As with so much else in the febrile political climate of the moment, we cannot predict what might replace or update the Ten Prisons Project, or Gauke’s move away from custodial sentences towards rehabilitation.

The language and direction of political discourse and policy point to dramatically different outcomes in the months ahead compared to the May government. For the men and women in our prisons, Patel seems an unlikely champion; so far, Buckland has yet to make any public pronouncement on the topic. 

The ‘hard right’ shift of the new government is a convenient journalistic label, but possibly a flawed one. The reality may be more nuanced. How the battle between Patel’s strongly conservative instincts and Buckland’s more liberal stance plays out in the coming months will be a test of which force is dominant.

When the thousands of extra police officers are in place and presumably catching many thousands more criminals, we will see how many of them at the lower end of the spectrum continue to go to prison for more minor offences, or as Gauke argued, receive non-custodial sentences instead.

Much rests upon the new Prime Minister: his preferred policy direction on prison reform and non-custodial sentences will be pivotal. Boris is often seen as a Janus, facing in two directions at once. Which way he turns over the prison issue will therefore be a true test of whether his government is civilised, or merely populist.


Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator. www.dominiccarman.com