Universities of Crime: A Failure of the Prison System

Updated: Feb 28

"If you are unable to abolish and reform the prison system, every youth who goes to prison for any crime is effective to manslaughter."

Words: Fin Quinlan

The last 100 years in England and Wales has seen the annual prison population quadruple from just over 17,400 incarcerated in 1900 to around 82,900 in 2019. Although the population of both countries has increased significantly in this time, today there are 173 prisoners per 100,000 people compared to in 1900 when there were 86 per 100,000 people. In 100 years the average prison population had doubled.

A result of this immense increase of the prison population is overcrowding. Labour MP Meg Hiller, chair of the Public Accounts Committee highlighted in a report that "Almost two-thirds of adult prisons in England and Wales are already crowded, with the top 10 most crowded prisons running at 147% or higher than their intended capacity." It is with these figures in our arsenal that we can now look at the fact that 75% of prisoners are seen back in prison within 9 years of their first offence and 39.5% within the first 12 months.

Officially called recidivism the amount an ex-convict reoffends is tracked fairly consistently by most governments as it can be an extremely useful way of checking how well the prison system is actually working. With a reoffending rate of 75% it is an apparent truth that our prison system does not work to help the people most in need. Instead of having a prison system that rehabilitates the offender, we have one that reinforces and encourages their behaviour.

As far back as 1913 revolutionary Russian anarchist, socialist and researcher Pyotr Kropotkin wrote that prisons are ‘breeding places of criminality’ and that they exist as ‘Universities of Crime’ with a degrading effect on its inmates. Kropotkin pointed out that:

‘Prison work is made to be an instrument of base revenge. What must the prisoner think of the intelligence of these “pillars of society” who pretend by such punishments to “reform” the prisoners?’

To him, every prison destroys the physical energy of its inmates through the monotony of existence: "the prison education is directed precisely towards killing every manifestation of will." This is an institution famously criticised by Oscar Wilde in his Ballad of Reading Gaol in which he makes a point to constantly repeat "got to swing". Wilde is pointing out throughout the entire poem that an inmate in prison is destined to never reform and has "to swing" even from the fourth stanza.

The Prison Reform Trust published figures in 2009 concluding that ‘Investment in prevention, treatment for addicts and mental healthcare would all pay dividends.’ Yet the government does not acknowledge the need for investment in rehabilitation, instead Prime Minister Boris Johnson has re-committed to creating 10,000 new prison places with two new prisons in Glen Parva and Wellingborough, a price tag of £2.5 billion.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons (HMIP) have found that only 42% of prisons were marked as ‘good’ in the extent to which "prisoners are able, and expected, to engage in activity that is likely to benefit them" and 26% of prisons were marked as ‘poor’. With prisoners now being forced to spend more time in their cells (HMIP found that only 10% of prisoners got their recommended 10hrs a day time unlocked from their cells), they are unable to spend time engaging in learning a new skill or retraining in education. As a direct result of this increased cell time prisoners are led to have increased frustration, greater boredom, and a much higher use of drugs. The number of prisoners starting accredited programmes to reduce domestic violence, offending, sexual offending and violence has fallen by 36% between 2009/10 and 2017/18. Is this not a damning indictment of the fact that even now, over 100 years later, prisons are still not being used to reform the inmates and instead are used to dehumanise, degrade, and encourage habits that lead to reoffending. As Kropotkin wrote over 100 years ago:

‘What can remain of a man’s will and good intentions after five or six years of such an education? And where can he go after his release, unless he returns to the very same chums whose company has brought him to the jail? They are the only ones who will receive him as an equal. But when he joins them he is sure to return to the prison in a very few months. And so he does.’

If you are unable to abolish and reform the prison system, every youth who goes to prison for any crime is effective to manslaughter, their life dashed upon the rocks of the judicial system.

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