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Criminal justice

Britain is jailing far too many people

A prisoner at HMP Pentonville. Ian Waldie/Getty Images

The British prison system is positively Victorian, says Frances Crook in The Guardian. I should know – I’ve spent 35 years working in them. Inmates spend almost all day in their cells, breaking only for the occasional class or shower. They wear the same clothes day and night: “saggy prison uniforms, unwashed for days on end”. The food is unchangingly abysmal, a sandwich for lunch and stodge for supper. It’s a dangerous sort of monotony. “Life inside does nothing for the mental health challenges many prisoners face.” And life outside is not much better. With no proper rehabilitation schemes in place, many ex-prisoners lose contact with their family and are destined for homelessness and joblessness. No wonder almost half of them reoffend. “It is a merry-go-round but without cheer.”

The system needs a “radical overhaul”. To start with, we should stop locking people up so frivolously. There are 78,600 people in prison in England and Wales. That’s double the number locked up under Margaret Thatcher – and she was “no softie on criminal justice”. Prison should only be used in exceptional circumstances, “for the most egregious crimes or when someone poses a serious and continuing threat to public safety”. For everything else, local rehabilitation services would “save the taxpayer a fortune, change lives and transform incarceration for good”.