It is common knowledge that the British prison system is overcrowded, overloaded and underfunded. What is less publicised is the extent to which the system is, quite frankly, failing. About 3/4 of young offenders and 1/2 of all offenders commit a crime within two years of being released from gaol - at a massive cost of £11bn to the tax payer. Whether the objective of prison is to reform offenders, exclude them so they cannot re-offend or to punish them, the British government is finding it increasingly difficult to justify maintaining such a failing public service.

The prison system in no way benefits the offenders: statistics show that more than 70% of prisoners have two or more mental disorders, disregarding the systematic 'normal' alienation and institutionalisation that occurs. About half of British inmates have a reading age below that of an 11-year old. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that on release ex-cons are ill-equipped for life on the outside, that leads to the extremely high rates of reoffending. Why should this public service be allowed such a high failure rate? If three quarters of young people went to school and came out traumatised and less educated, there would be an outcy from the British public...

The degree of overcrowding in UK prisons is astounding. In April 2003, the prison population reached 73 300, which is an increase of 2/3 since 1993. Current estimates guess at a population of about 110 000 by 2010. The result of this is that what schemes there are to rehabilitate prisoners are being crowded out by the need to invest in new beds, buildings and other basics. The cost of transport is also higher, as inmates are moved from prison to prison to make room for those who need to be near courts.

This all said, however, the government is beginning to respond to the pressure for an improved prison system. Groups such as Smart Justice and the Prison Reform Trust give a voice to those who cannot protest their conditions due to being incarcerated. The government plans to build more prisons to ease overcrowding, and increase the number of community sentences awarded. Most of the improvement however is coming from private sources: charities and other such organisations run training and literacy courses, which give inmates an increased chance of getting a job on leaving gaol.

The case for increased alternative and community sentences is strong. A 2002 Social Exclusion Unit report stated that "...Prison sentences are not appropriate for all offenders who currently receive them; and too many people with severe mental illness are in prison." The report advocated community sentencing, and treatment for mentally ill people in secure hospitals. Statistically, of every 100 people who serve a community sentence, 11 fewer reoffend than those who have been in prison. Not only does this benefit the public through reduced crime, but is also cheaper on the taxpayer, so more money could be invested in rehabilitation for those who are in prison.

Similarly, campaigns to stop crime before it starts in deprived areas have been proved to work. Youth Inclusion Programmes in England and Wales have reduced crime on average by 64%. Community action and sentences are not a cop out. Often the offender is expected to confront the damage they have caused, such as meeting their victims; and the work is rigorous and disciplined. The existence of remaining prisons also provides an incentive to complete the sentence satisfactorily to avoid being put inside.

The UK prison system has many problems, but is beginning to ipmrove. Sadly, much of this improvement is not due to the government, although the prisons are a public service; but by charities and sponsor groups. There is little awareness among the British public as the the extent of the problem, as unlike most public services - schools, hospitals and so on, it does not directly affect most people.

"Barring the Way to Success" - Lucie Russell
"Eye to Eye" - Matthew Weiner
"Release with no Freedom" - Diane Taylor
"Inside Jobs on the Outside" - Jack Hanauer
all from TBISW, Big Issue Foundation, Bristol.
Social Exclusion Unit Prison Report, 2002