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Overcrowded prisons, overworked staff
BRITAIN'S PRISON officers held their first-ever national strike, mainly on pay, in August. Another major issue that strikers raised was that of conditions. Prisons are still massively overcrowded. According to the National Offender Management Service 80,762 people were in prison in August. Prison officers are also very overstretched, which is bad for prison officers and prisoners alike.
The government response has been a limited early release programme (ECL) and a new prison-building programme. Early release of prisoners has been part of Britain's penal system for over 100 years, although the last Tory government drastically curtailed this, adding 1,000 extra prisoners into the system, under Michael Howard's slogan of 'prison works'.
The law allows prisoners to be released on the Home Secretary's power up to six months early. Former Home Secretary John Reid limited it to 18 days, in line with Labour's right-wing law and order policies.
The tabloid press protested nonetheless over prisoners being given £170 cash on leaving prison. But all prisoners get this money, usually £45, to help them survive until they can sign on and start claiming benefits. Prisoners released under ECL are given extra money because they cannot sign on until the days they are released early have passed. They are still technically prisoners.
However, pressure from right-wingers led to this scheme being scrapped. ECL prisoners get only £45, which is supposed to last them until they can start claiming benefits, up to a month. Probation officers' union NAPO calls this a recipe for re-offending.
The government are also building more prisons to provide 9,500 extra places by 2014, although their own estimates show that at the rate prisons are filling, the cells will run out again then.
Moreover, at present up to 400 police cells are holding prisoners who won't fit in prison. This is at a huge cost. New Labour have privatised both police cells and prisons. Increases in prison populations will be another vehicle for this privatisation, making prisons even more like human warehouses.
All the main parties have the same vision for their law and order agenda, of more and more of the population being locked away, similar to the USA. Socialists wholeheartedly disagree with such ideas.
The Prison Officers Association have welcomed the announcements of new prisons. But the prison service, like other state institutions under capitalism, is drastically under-funded.
Striking prison officers interviewed by the socialist stressed that staffing has been drastically cut over the last few years.
Understaffing means that prisoners spend more time locked up in cells rather than doing any activities, frustrating for staff and prisoners alike. This situation will worsen if any further expansion of the prison population through building new prisons goes ahead.
Socialists argue for a radical decrease in the prison population. Many people are locked up due to debt and poverty.
Moreover, sentences handed out by courts have crept up in length and the proportion sent to prison for more than 30 years, despite the crime rate going down over recent years.
To implement this reduction, socialists call for the democratic election of judges, subject to recall.
Moreover, we demand the release of all people imprisoned for fine defaults, ASBO defaults and other trivial offences, with democratically elected bodies to review all other cases.
Socialists do not necessarily oppose building new prisons. But we would argue that any new prisons need to be part of a plan to reduce the jail population, through replacing older prisons with newer ones, which held fewer prisoners but with more facilities and better conditions.
This would free up staff to reduce the prisoner-staff ratio, whilst providing better prison facilities. But these prisons should not be built and run by the private sector with their history of providing poorer quality prisons.
Moreover, socialists demand that privatised prisons are renationalised too.
Such a programme would reduce the overcrowding crisis in prisons. However, to tackle the problem of crime a socialist programme is needed that would give jobs and training for all on a living wage, with housing and other essentials of life under public ownership and control.
Prisons should be geared towards helping offenders overcome any problems such as not being able to read or write.
Combined with the measures above, most prisoners would be able to emerge into a meaningful life on the outside and escape the re-offending trap that sees six in ten of those who are released back inside within two years.
In The Socialist 13 September 2007:
War and terrorism
Workplace news and events
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party feature
International news and analysis
Socialist Party review