A former deputy prime minister and two former home secretaries have called on the Government to cut the prison population by almost half. In a letter to the Times, Nick Clegg, Ken Clarke and Jacqui Smith said the UK’s prisons had become unsustainable and dangerous – and claimed the current system was bad for offenders and wider society.
The letter urges the Government to drastically reduce inmate numbers to increase safety and security in prisons, and improve reform among offenders. But former home secretary Michael Howard has criticised the proposal, claiming it would be “gravely irresponsible” to reduce the prison population without considering the effect the move could have on the national crime rate. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice has insisted the Government is committed to ensuring that prisons are “places of safety and reform”.
Restoring Order, Security & Purpose to Prisons
In their letter, the cross-party trio describes the recent riots at Birmingham Prison as “a wake-up call for this country”. Hundreds of inmates were involved in more than 12 hours of unrest at the facility in one of the worst prison riots in recent years.
The letter points out that half of inmates reoffend within a year of their release, adding that there has been a 31% increase in assaults in prisons, and an inmate takes their own life every three days.
“We believe that an escalating prison population has gone well beyond what is safe or sustainable,” the letter continues.
“To restore order, security and purpose to our jails, ministers should now make it their policy to reduce prison numbers. If the tide is not turned soon, the prisons crisis will do untold damage to wider society.”
UK Should Avoid ‘American-Style Mass Incarceration’
Since the letter was published, Nick Clegg has warned of the dangers of the UK moving towards “American-style levels of mass incarceration”, claiming that allowing the growth of inmate numbers to continue would be expensive and unproductive.
He said reducing the prison population from 85,000 to 45,000 – closer to what it was under Margaret Thatcher’s Government – would be a safer and more effective way of dealing with crime. Mr Clegg called the current prison system “ineffective”, adding that many inmates, particularly those serving short-term sentences, reoffended shortly after their release and quickly found themselves back in prison.
Prisons Should be ‘Places of Safety & Reform’
In response to the letter, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said the prison population had remained “relatively stable since 2010”, adding: “The justice secretary has been clear that she wants to see more early intervention and a reduction in reoffending.
“We have launched a White Paper outlining our plans to make prisons places of safety and reform, and have announced a comprehensive review of our probation system, focused on reducing reoffending by getting offenders off drugs and into training or work.”
Michael Howard, the Conservative peer who famously claimed that “prisons work” during his time as home secretary, has hit back against the proposal to reduce the prison population to 45,000. He said the move would be “gravely irresponsible” unless the potential impact on crime levels was properly considered.