Rising prison numbers

The Government and public opinions of prison has fluctuated over the years as we have moved swiftly through conflicting phases of beliefs which range from the firm conviction that "Prison Works! " to the opposing opinion that "Prison is simply an expensive way of making bad people worse". As the populations continue to soar and the reconviction rates also, this is still an ongoing debate and one, which is showing no signs of any conclusive resolution.

The statement "Prison makes bad people worse" came from the 1990 Conservative Government White Paper, Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public which stated that, "For most offenders, imprisonment has to be justified in terms of public protection, denunciation and retribution" (Waddington, 1990, p. 1). Its belief was that prison could work if used " not as a mechanism for reform or rehabilitation but as a means of incapacitation and punishment that satisfies popular political demands for public safety and harsh retribution" (Garland, 2001, p.14).

The Conservatives believed, at this time, that any other reason for using prison simply did not work and that the prospects of reforming offenders are actually much better in the community. The prison population fell under this government from 50,000 to 40,000 (Graef, 2000, p. 1). The subsequent Criminal Justice Act of 1991 was similar in its conviction and ordered sentencers to use prison only as a "last resort" and to give reasons as to why it was necessary for "serious offences".

However, these orders did not combine well with the British public's primordial love of punishment and required judges, magistrates and ministers to face up to this harsh reality which is so vividly expressed in our daily tabloids. In contrast to this, 1993 saw ex-Home Secretary Michael Howard confidently assert at a Conservative Party Conference that: "Prison Works! " (Wilson, 2003, p10). The licence that Michael Howard's statement gave to sentencers meant that the prison population, which was at around 40,000 at the time, had exceeded 60,000 by 1997.

As a result our prisons are now overflowing and deteriorating and could possibly be holding as many as 90,000 by 2005 (Graef, 2001, p. 1). The Home Office's latest brief confirmed that Britain now has, next to Portugal, the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe. In light of these staggering statistics there is no question that something needs to be done about the state of our present sentencing processes and our prisons alike.

However, establishing what really does work effectively with offenders is no easy task and discovering whether "prison is simply an expensive way of making bad people worse" is something which is proving increasingly difficult to assess. An obvious place to start when trying to establish the amount of accuracy in this statement is by looking at reconviction rates, however this is neither simple or necessarily accurate either.

Many studies have been carried out over the years in search of the most effective form of punishment but results have been relatively disappointing. Extensive reviews of such research carried out by Lipton, Martinson, Wilks and Brody (1976) have generally found that different penal measures have similarly unimpressive outcomes in terms of re-offending; with little variation being found between straightforward imprisonment and more intensive non-custodial measures in the community.

This therefore, does nothing to contribute to the belief that prison is an any more ineffective form of punishment than community sentences which only serves to "make bad people worse" but it is a conclusion which cannot be taken at face value. As noted by Lloyd and his colleagues (1994) there are many limitations involved in simply using these rates as a measure of effectiveness and although they do not rule out their worth they do emphasise that rates of reconviction are not "neutral, technical…

unproblematic or easily understood" (Lloyd, Mair & Hough, 1994, p. 3). There are so many factors influencing the accuracy of reconviction rates as a measure of sentence effectiveness that it would be foolish to simply rely on these alone therefore, in order to gain more of an insight into the effects of imprisonment on an individual it is essential to look at the broader picture. Prison poses many questions as to the actual effect on criminal behaviour and also to the devastating effects it has upon the individual and the families involved.

It also presents many issues concerning employment; accommodation and general resettlement once the time has been served (Bingham, 1997, p. 11). In 2001 the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, addressed some of these issues and questioned whether "sending someone to jail for less than six months, costing them their job, and in some cases their family, is helpful in rehabilitating and stopping them offending" (Blunkett, 2001, p. 3). He went on to state the importance of considering what the individuals subjected to short custodial sentences are likely to gain in terms of rehabilitation and knowledge.

The sad truth in response to this question is that little time and overcrowding make it highly unlikely that prisoners on short term sentences will complete an offending behaviour programme so we need to ask again, what exactly will they learn? Could it be, as Blunkett himself suggested, that "prisons are colleges of crime where, undoubtedly, people learn more about crime than they will learn anywhere else in their lives" (Blunkett, 2001, p. 4) or as similarly suggested by Graef (2001) they will possibly "emerge angrier and better skilled both at heavier crimes and avoiding detection" (p.1).

This brings forward the glaringly obvious fact that prison offers a prime opportunity to deal and mix with many more offenders and the concepts of 'prisonisation' and 'inmate cultures' are introduced. The process of 'prisonisation' was first spoken of by Clemmer (1940) who described it as "the gradual destructive socialisation of prisoners into the norms of prison life which make it difficult for them to successfully adapt to a law-abiding life outside, thereby possibly deepening criminality" (Clemmer, 1940 cited in Morgan, 1997 p. 1178).

Many believe that "these conditions of prison life and the experiences they shape contribute to the building of a criminal identity and the persistence, rather than the elimination, of criminal behaviour (Hester & Eglin, 1992, p. 247). In the words of Eriksson (1966), " Such institutions gather marginal people into tightly segregated groups, give them the opportunity to teach one another skills and attitudes of a deviant career, and provoke them into employing these skills by reinforcing their sense of alienation from the rest of society" (p. 178).

Within these incarcerated societies a culture emerges, ways of doing things and different sets of values, which sees the prisoners and the guards assuming specific characters and roles. There has been a long-standing debate concerning the sources of these inmate cultures and there has been much discussion as to whether they are primarily of indigenous or imported origin (Morgan, 1997, p. 1178). Indigenous theories stress the distinctiveness of prison life because of its all encompassing character and sees them as 'total institutions' which almost completely shut off prisoners from the outside world.

An example of this is represented in the works of Sykes (1958) who focussed on the 'pains of imprisonment' and the many deprivations that living in prison involves. He described the prisoners as being under "psychological assault" (Morgan, 1997, p. 1178) and states that the loss of expression of personal identity forces prisoners into individualistic responses which help them to cope with these stresses.

These responses can take on a number of different forms but largely develop into prisoner solidarity against staff which, sees a community emerge with its own set of norms and values which, in turn; helps the prisoners to maintain a certain degree of self esteem. Another example of indigenous theory is the work of Goffman (1968) who describes prison as "a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together form an enclosed, formally administered round of life (p. 11).