We asked some people serving time how to make sure fewer people get sent to jail.
Last week, the Council of Europe published a report that saw UK prisons ranked the most heavily populated in the EU. The figures show that there were 95,248 people incarcerated in the UK in 2014; this figure has since increased and will likely continue to rise.
I'm a teacher in prison. Recently, having managed to get the mandatory entry level literacy exercises out of the way (this session: how to structure a formal and informal letter), I asked a selection of prisoners in my class why they felt they were part of the biggest prison population in the EU and what, if anything, could be done about this.
(Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy).
Dave, 33, was sentenced to eight weeks (of which he'll serve four) for non-payment of fines. I ask Dave if he thinks his offense warranted a custodial sentence, and he laughs; he describes it as "absolute bollocks" but says he'd be happy enough to do it again if he has to—although he does go on to complain about having to put up with four different cellmates and a chicken salad baguette that contained only one piece of lettuce and a single cucumber slice.
Bravado aside, it's clear that Dave doesn't want to come back to prison if he can help it. He misses his children and his girlfriend, and he has felt very uncomfortable around "the dirty smack heads." He tells me that it's obvious there's a problem with drugs being freely available in prison, and he has heard of people deliberately picking up small sentences so they can make money inside from dealing. The penalties for being caught bringing drugs into prison are pretty steep, and a more concerted effort is being made to halt the flow of drugs from outside, but it's clear that it's still an issue for concern and a big barrier to even beginning to help rehabilitate people and make inroads into reducing the number of people in jail.
Paul, 36, has been inside a couple of times over the last two decades, first for 12 months, but this time for 14 weeks. He's got a well-paid job outside as a plasterer and is in the fortunate position of knowing that he can drop back into work more or less the day after leaving prison. This is interesting, as many of the students I teach complain they end up committing another crime and returning to jail because of a lack of work available to them once they leave. Paul has a degree of sympathy for this, but he is quick to add that ultimately it's down to an individual to sort themselves out, and he says relying on the prison system to help them is a waste of time.
At this point, Paul starts talking about "benefits culture" and draws a link to how prison life serves as an extension of the welfare state: free food and free board in return for passive compliance. Is he saying that people are seeing regular stays at prison as a natural part of their lives? "Some fuckers are, yeah, for sure," he replies. No one in the room disagrees, out loud at least.
Given his profession, I ask Paul whether or not more focus on practical trade courses would work to reduce reoffending, and by extension, the overall prison population. He agrees in principle but says that even when the appetite to learn is there, sentences are often far too short to properly master a trade, even at a basic level—which again leaves the onus on prisoners to make their own way upon release, often with the inevitable consequences.
Simon, 24, has been in and out of prison since he was 16. He tells me that he tried adding up the total amount of months he's been inside, and it came to just under six years. What's interesting about this is that Simon has only ever received relatively small sentences (the longest being eight months); the long time actually spent in jail derives from the constant breaking of tag and license conditions and also crimes committed while in prison (punching a prison guard in the face being the most notable).
Simon has previously spoken about the transition from Youth Offenders prison to the adult HMP experience. I ask him how he first felt being around older men, often with long and serious criminal records, and he insists that this wasn't a problem. He does, however, say that being placed in a prison 200 miles away from his family was difficult to deal with. They weren't able to visit him, for what he now recognizes as legitimate financial reasons, and it led to a breakdown in communication that resulted in him being homeless, fast-tracking his drug use and return to prison. Simon has reconciled with his family now, but he says that this was a huge factor in him developing the pattern of returning to prison so frequently.
Alfred, 26, is serving six years for a third strike on selling cocaine, MDMA, and ecstasy. He has decent grades and was two thirds of his way through a college degree when he received his first strike. The group has already discussed how many crimes don't really warrant prison sentences, how individuals need to take stronger ownership of their life choices, and how rehabilitation somehow needs to be worked into prison culture. Alfred agrees in principle with all of this, but ultimately, he sees the problem as being something entirely different. Smaller, state-owned prisons are being closed, and the trend toward private prisons seems to be on the rise, something that Alfred views as pointing towards an ever-expanding prison population.
It's a pretty sinister and dystopian thought, but equally hard to disagree with Alfred when he says, "Private prisons only exist to make profit—why would they ever turn away a new or returning customer? For them, the bigger the prison population, the better."
The men in my class don't have any specific answers on what could be done to reduce the prison population, but their own experiences of prison life certainly do point toward what's going wrong. It's possible to look at, say, Scandinavian countries with excellent records of rehabilitation and lower rates of reoffending, but policy that is successful and practical for one kind of country, with a very different economy, isn't necessarily suitable for the UK. What's clear however is that a bad situation is only going to get worse if we carry on down the route of privatization; I've already taught classes that contain a father and son. How long before whole families take up semi-permanent residence in super-sized McPrisons?