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Prison: The Inside Story

Earlier this year Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced his latest money-making scheme – to sell off Britain’s prisons. In doing so he hopes to resolve the problem of operating Victorian, expensive to run and hard to maintain buildings and to free up prime residential opportunities for property developers. With the proceeds of the sale Osborne has plans to build nine new out-of-town replacements, hoping to save £80 million a year.

Whilst the idea may sound appealing, Berkeley Squares thinks that Osborne needs reminding that many of these Victorian edifices with listed architectural status will be difficult to turn into trendy apartments, and that this might reduce his likely selling price.

A room in South Africa's Robben Island Prison.
A room in South Africa’s Robben Island Prison.

But perhaps Osborne is missing the more important point. Prisons are certainly overcrowded (at least 70 of the total UK stock of 117 are acknowledged to be so) and this should be the issue that motivates change, not short-term cost savings.

The heart of the problem is that we send so many people to prison. Between 1993 and 2014 the numbers behind bars in the UK. increased by 91% to 85,000 – the highest rate in Europe. 3/4 of our offenders are there for non- violent crimes. Even more worryingly it doesn’t seem to do any good – half of those released are reconvicted within one year of release. On this basis a sensible government might question what purpose prisons are really serving, if any.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In Sweden there had been such a sharp fall in the number of prison admissions that over the last year they have closed down four prisons and one remand centre.

In Britain we take punishment more seriously. And when we’ve got them we don’t like to let them go: there are now 102 people in our prisons who are aged 80 or over and 5 who are over 90. The over 60s are the fastest growing age group in prison today – increasing by nearly 150% over the last 10 years. Amongst these inmates mental health problems and depression are largely untreated although naturally enough incarceration affects a significant proportion of elderly offenders: and if we must think about money then George Osborne would do well to note that geriatric inmates cost the taxpayer three times more than younger ones. It seems bizarre that in 2015 elderly inmates, who surely represent a very low risk to the public, should be incarcerated at all.

But at least our prisoners aren’t in America. Between 1980 and 2008 their prison population grew from 1/2 million to 2.3 million and 25% of the world’s prisoners are in the US. Who needs enemies when you’ve got Uncle Sam on your side?

A few years ago the UK government promised to crack down on the causes of crime. If Osbourne wants to save money in our prisons a presumption against imprisonment of the elderly and more emphasis on the rehabilitation of offenders might be a good way forward.