Locking them up

In July 2010 the Irish prison population was 4,473, up from 3,926 a year earlier. This was a rather dramatic increase of 14 per cent, and results in Ireland having 99 prisoners per 100,000 population. But by international standards that is not huge: England has 148 per 100,000, Scotland has 134, the United States a whopping 737. Germany has 94 per 100,000, Norway has 66, and India has a mere 30.

Penal policy in most countries is shockingly unenlightened, and is more often than not based on prejudice, backwardness, ignorance and intolerance. Politicians press for custodial sentences for all sorts of conduct in the (probably correct) belief that this plays well with voters. In the meantime, prisons are often unpleasant overcrowded crime academies that turn minor delinquents into hardened criminals who will pop in and out of prison for much of their lives, causing havoc during their periods of liberty.

In addition, we manage to put people in prison who are of absolutely no danger to the public (or at least, aren’t until we get them in there, after which all bets are off). It is amazing that we have still used prisons to punish people who cannot pay fines, though thankfully the Law Reform Commission in Ireland has recommended that this insane practice should stop.

It is good also that the current Conservative/LibDem administration in the UK is giving some thought to this issue, with the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke suggesting that for many people prison does not work – something that would have been regarded as heresy in the Conservative Party until very recently (and perhaps still is).

But for all of us, the world over, we need to understand the limits of custodial punishment, and its social impact. We need to grasp the obvious truth that sections of the population that are disaffected and feel they have no stake in society represent the most significant risk to good order and public safety, and that locking away the most difficult members of this group actually makes everything worse. Addressing that is where the priority should lie.

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4 Comments on “Locking them up”

  1. wendymr Says:

    The criminal justice system internationally is in huge need of overhaul. Those figures on prison population are eye-opening: does anyone really think that Americans are that much more prone to criminal behaviour than Indians? The reasons for which some people are incarcerated, and then kept in prison, need a considerable amount of rethinking, as does the system of rehabilitation.

    Have you read Erwin James’ A Life Inside? There’s a second book, The Home Stretch: From Prison to Parole. Both are excellent reads. Erwin James – a pseudonym – for anyone who doesn’t know, wrote a regular column for the Guardian about prison life. At the time, he was serving a life sentence, and later columns chronicled his move through the parole and release systems. His columns illustrated many of the flaws and institutionalised wrongs of the British penal system, but done in such a way that the crimes committed by prisoners (including James) were never minimised. He now speaks and campaigns on rehabilitation and prison reform.

    I did also read the first volume of Jeffrey Archer’s prison diaries; not in the same league, and quite self-aggrandising at times, but again he highlighted some of the absurdities and insanities of the system – including petty offenders serving remand time with those charged with very serious offences, and often ending up on drugs or in debt to those more hardened criminals by the time their trials came up.

    But, as you say, it’s almost political suicide to suggest that fewer people should be locked up or non-custodial sentences should be favoured for certain crimes, and as long as that remains the case these problems won’t go away. And then, of course, we could get into the socio-economic analysis of crime: why is it that proportionally there are more blacks in the US prison system than in the population as a whole? Why are more socio-economically deprived individuals in prison? Why is someone from a low-income background more likely to get a custodial sentence than someone from a middle-class background committing a similar crime? Why does the prison population increase during a recession? Ah, but these are just the kind of questions asked by lefties who are soft on crime, aren’t they?

    • anna notaro Says:

      There is little known book now, Le mie prigioni (1832) My Prisons, by the Italian patriot and dramatist Sivio Pellico (translated into virtually every European language during his lifetime) which finds an echo in the struggle of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. When it come to prison’s reform etc. Pellico was the first to advocate a more human and not uniquely repressive approach.

  2. kevin denny Says:

    The US case is interesting because young black males are vastly over-represented in the penal system. Bruce Western (Harvard) has done a lot of work on this, I was at a talk he gave here recently and the numbers were scary.
    In Ireland, the equivalent is young working class males. I reckon there are large parts of Dublin and other cities were you are more likely to end up in the ‘Joy or Cloverhill than in UCD or TCD.
    Prison in general, costs the tax-payer a bundle. Ireland is no exception where I think the ratio of staff to inmate is quite high.


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