Quakers in Criminal Justice

May 2009 Newsletter


[Since the Editorial below was written, the government has retreated from the previous proposal for Titan prisons. It would be heartening to think that they have seen the light, but the truth is probably more about expediency. And replacing three 25,000 prisons by five 15,000 prisons, still larger than anything we have now, is hardly a policy change, and does not affect the view expressed below.]

I entered a new vortex of despair on being assured by a colleague that plans for Titan prisons are now so far advanced that there is nothing Friends can now do to stop them from going ahead. The present government, to its discredit, has ignored all representations from people in the criminal justice industry, who have been pretty well united in speaking out against the scheme. It seems to me that we are now moving beyond the traditional rituals of punishment towards a society in which large numbers of miscreants have to be shut away from the rest of us because we are not prepared to tolerate their presence among us. The prisons will do nothing for victims of crime, many of whom are nothing like as vindictive as the Press barons like to assume. Rehabilitation becomes impossible under pressure of numbers, and all the evidence suggests that institutional abuses of all kinds flourish more readily in large establishments than in small ones. What we will have when the Titan prisons open for business is not a rational answer to UK crime (which is declared to be falling anyway), but enormous human warehouses which serve no purpose beyond keeping people out of circulation for a while, then to release them back into a community that does not want them, more disadvantaged than when they went in. The few who really need to be in confinement will not have their needs met; neither will victims; neither will the wider community. The whole scheme is a gross misuse of resources, and it is being perpetrated through fear – the fear of those in charge, that they will be seen as “soft on crime” and not get re-elected.

Building the Titan prisons will not solve the problem of prison over­crowding. Demand expands to keep pace with supply, as the Victorians were puzzled to find when they began a programme of building lunatic asylums, and found that increasing numbers of lunatics always kept pace with the number of places provided. My longing for the demise of the present government, which set out twelve years ago with the wholehearted goodwill of many of us, is tempered only by apprehension about what will succeed it. I cannot see a Conservative government rescinding the decision to build the prisons, or replacing it with plans for smaller, more effective places of confinement for the few who really need them. For me, the Titan prisons represent a new nadir of penal policy, a turning towards a dark future many of us will be glad not to live to see. The prospect is of a return to the philosophy of the concentration camp – this time, concentration camps with roofs.

Adrian Smith
Newsletter editor

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