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From Rehabilitation to Punishment

The Prison Crisis in the UK

by PETER STÄUBER

London.

During his three years behind bars, Alex Cavendish learned many things. He learned, for example, that serving a cold sandwich instead of a cooked meal can be dangerous – food is one of the things that keep prisoners going, and disruption of that routine leads to frustration: ‘I’ve been in a prison where there was a riot as a consequence of a meal being cancelled’, says Cavendish, who has gone through six different penal institutions across England and Wales and worked as a mentor for other prisoners. He has learned about the problem of indebtedness in prisons (‘If you think payday loans are bad, go borrow off another inmate…’), about bullying, violence and sexual abuse. And he has seen how the state of prisons has gone from bad to critical.

The public has seen glimpses of the crisis – in recent months, there have been reports of a dramatic rise in prison suicides, overcrowding, riots in HMP Ranby in Nottinghamshire and HMP Northumberland, and prisoners going for two days without water and elecricity in Doncaster. But for outsiders it is hard to grasp just how bad the state of our prisons really is.

On one level, the crisis can be explained with a simple numerical fact: there are too many prisoners and too few staff. Today there are around 85’900 people in prison in England and Wales. In the past 20 years, the prison population has almost doubled, and the UK incarceration rate is now the highest in the whole of Western Europe. For justice secretary Chris Grayling, these figures do not seem to be a problem: ‘We do not have a prison overcrowding crisis’, he said in June; he reasons that as operational capacity of the whole prison estate stands at 86’421, there are a few hundred more prisoners who can be crammed in. But, as Robert Preece from the Howard League for Penal Reform explains, this is not how it works: While operational capacity refers to the number of people you can physically squeeze into the prison estate, the prison services have their own measure of how many people should be accommodated, the Certified Normal Accommodation, CNA. This is the figure that indicates how many people can be safely and decently held. The current CNA level is 76’619 people, 10’000 less than are accommodated now.

But the problem is even worse than that, says Preece: ‘If you’ve got a prison cell that is designed for two people, but it holds three, then you don’t have one person living in overcrowded conditions, but three.’ According to this measure, there are 20’000 people living in...

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