In a civilised country, says Matthew Parris in The Times, “every generation looks back and spots an outrage”. Today, when we think of slavery, child labour and lunatic asylums, we wonder how our ancestors could have been so cruel. What will horrify our own successors is our disgraceful prison system. When former MP Rory Stewart became prisons minister five years ago, the situation he found was, he says, “grotesque, horrifying and shameful”. He describes, in a kind of “post-traumatic shock”, young men sharing cells with mentally disturbed older prisoners, inmates “defecating in front of each other”, and a horrifying combination of “loneliness and terror”.
Successive leaders have shirked their responsibility to fix this outrage, for fear of being seen as soft on crime. The only one “big enough to admit it” is John Major, who said last week that the number of short prison sentences for non-violent criminals should be cut. “What they need is a job, a home and family relationships,” says former justice secretary David Gauke, who shares Major’s view. “Put inside, they lose all three.” Some other countries are getting this right. In the 1990s, Norway began abolishing big central prisons and sending fewer people to jail. It now has one of the world’s lowest crime rates, and “the lowest rate of reoffending”. The Dutch, who have also been shutting prisons and cutting jail terms, saw their crime rate fall 40% between 2008 and 2018. Ultimately, we are responsible for prisoners more than any other members of society – “they are our captives”. And currently we are failing in our duty of care.