Don’t be fooled by nonsense about prisons

There are six prisons in the county of Lancashire, with just over 4,000 total.

If we jailed a similar proportion of the population to the United States, that figure would not be 4,000, but 20,000.

There’d be a prison in every town in the county – including Burnley, Accrington, and Blackburn – and some would be huge.

So much for the nonsense which is now becoming a commonplace on radio and television, that the UK has among the highest jail population in the world.

It is untrue.

The United States has a prison population of close on 2,300,000 at the most recent count.

That’s 756 prisoners for every 100,000 – not far short of one in every 100 people being in jail (and a much higher proportion if you happen to be young, male, and black).

Great Britain has around 93,000 in its jails.

That’s 153 prisoners for every 100,000– almost exactly one-fifth of the United States’ rate.

Were we at US levels, there’d be 465,000 inmates in jails in England, Scotland and Wales.

So where did this nonsense come from?

For ‘the world,’ read ‘most countries in Western Europe.’ Our prison population is, proportionately, about half as big again as that of France, and Germany.

But it’s not the case for all western European countries.

Spain, for example, jails a slightly higher proportion – and many of the new members of the EU, in the East are way above us.

So what about the ‘old Commonwealth,’ whose systems and cultures are closer to ours?

Canada jails fewer than do we, but Australia’s prison population is close to ours (129 inmates per 100,000 population), and New Zealand’s above (at 185).

Apologies for these numbers, but I like to be accurate, and to provide readers of with the facts so they can make their own minds up.

I do not want to see any more people in jail than is necessary, but a sensible debate about the use of prison should be an informed one.

What’s going on at the moment, as part of a smokescreen to disguise and then justify severe cuts in prison budgets, is a campaign to convince the public that our prison population has somehow gone through the roof, and – in the current jargon – is ‘unsustainable.’ It hasn’t, and it isn’t.

When I took over as Justice Secretary in 2007 I worked hard to try to moderate the increase in prison numbers.

Three years ago the ‘medium’ projection suggested that the population now would be 5,000 more than it is; and that by 2014 it could reach 102,000.

Partly the rapid rise did not happen because the significant reduction in crime is now feeding its way through to fewer criminals – (fewer young people involved in crime, for example).

We are also getting better at diverting people from crime through the cheaper, and where appropriate, better method of punishing them in the community.

But such an approach does not work for all offenders.

And the next time someone claims that there are a number of people in jail for ‘petty anti-social crimes’ ask them to say which criminals precisely now in jail they would release – and to spell out the crimes they are in for.

They are far from ‘petty’ for the victims.

Author: Jack Straw

Jack Straw was elected as the MP for Blackburn in 1979 and is currently the Secretary of State for Justice.

3 thoughts on “Don’t be fooled by nonsense about prisons”

  1. I wondered where you stood on the idea put forward at last weeks Tory conference to require prisoners to work a 40 hour week, and to pay them minimum wage.

    It seems to me that this would be ridiculously expensive – £5.80 per hour x 40 x 52 weeks (I assume we would pay “holiday” pay !) around 12,064 per prisoner x 93,000 prisoners – 1,121,952,000 – a “little” over a billion pounds before even thinking about tax & NI – and of course prisoners have no living costs.

    Very strong article this imho – thanks.

  2. Many thanks for the comment. On the Conservative’s proposals, I await further details, since without them it’s impossible to judge. Some prisoners in open conditions (Category D) already (this is from recollection) towards the end of their sentence may be working outside prison and earning a regular wage. Prisoners in closed conditions (Categories A, B, C) do work – but the wages are very low – around £10 per week. It’s difficult to see how those prisoners could suddenly be doing work which outside firms would pay, for the national minimum wage, but as I say I’ll wait to see the details. Jack Straw

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