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The Shame of Elizabethan Prisons
Last uploaded : Saturday 5th Jan 2002 at 23:50
Contributed by : Anthony Bilmes



Evelyn Waugh did not like quotations so I hope he will forgive me this one:
‘Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It was the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums – [he was writing in 1928 before ‘gay’ had an added meaning] - who find prison so soul destroying.’

Yet it is the deprived in society who, despite half a century of growing prosperity and comparative peace, are still with us, who are incarcerated in the crumbling estate that makes up Her Majesty’s Prisons.
The United Kingdom imprisons more people pro rata its population than any other Western country except for the United States and Portugal.
At the last count in September of this year in England & Wales there were 63,510 men in prison and 3,960 women. There were 13,370 prisoners aged under 21 years of age. In January 1990 there were 46,000 prisons in all. Now there are 67,470.

The prisons are literally bursting at their unsanitary seams. At the end of May 2001 there were twenty which were overcrowded by over twenty percent, there were six that were overcrowded by over fifty percent and the worst, Her Majesty’s Prison Preston – this should make her especially proud that it carries her name – was overcrowded to the extent of 78%. This means that where there should be 305 prisons there are instead 543.
The Prison Service cannot keep prisoners purposefully occupied even for the target 24 hours a week. 11,000 prisons are held captive more than 100 miles from their former homes, which makes visiting almost impossible.
Who are these people whose conduct makes it desirable for us to deprive them of family life, the chance of economic independence, self-respect, comfort and humanity?

Let’s look at just two easily identified groups. Ladies first.

In 1970 there were 1,000 women in prison. There are now 3,960, an increase of almost 300%. In the year to April 2001 alone there was an increase of 8%. At any one time between 20% and 25% are held on remand but the majority of those (65%) will not receive a custodial sentence. Rather sweetly the Home Office statistics are kept both annually and by financial year – April to April - as if the result were some sort of national asset. The overwhelming majority of these women are non-violent first offenders. More than 60% of them are mothers and it is estimated that over 8,000 children are effected by their mothers’ incarceration. When the Home Office conducted a survey in 1997 it reported that approximately a third of children with mothers in prison were aged under 5 years. Nearly 20% of women prisoners are more than 100 miles from home.

Women in prison have many of the characteristics of social exclusion; over 25 per cent spent time in care as a child, nearly 20 per cent have spent time as an in-patient in a mental hospital, and 47 per cent have no educational qualifications.
Nearly 50 per cent of women in prison report a dependence on drugs; women on remand have particularly high rates of drug misuse problems and are the most likely across the whole of the prison estate to inject drugs. Prevalence of HIV/AIDS is 13 times higher amongst women in prison than in the general population.
A survey by Nacro in 1999-2000 found that 43 per cent of women expected to be homeless on release from prison; 38 per cent said they had lost their home because of being in prison.

A brief word on our child prisoners. A Prison Reform Trust report in September estimated that 9 out of 10 children in prison have mental health problems with one at least of personality disorder, psychosis.

Over 90 per cent of imprisoned young offenders have at least one, or combination of, the following: personality disorder, psychosis, neurotic disorder, or substance misuse.
Mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and manic depression are significantly higher amongst male sentenced prisoners that young people in private households. Ten per cent compared to 0.2 per cent.

Many children and young people arrive in prison with a complex history of disturbance and distress. Young people in prison have a significant range of identified risk factors; over 30 per cent have spent time in local authority care, more than 60 per cent left school before they were 16 years old. Nearly 30 per cent of young women in prison report that they have been sexually abused.

Ten per cent of young men and 40 per cent of young women in prison take some form of medication, such as anti-depressants or sleeping tablets.
Since 1990, 19 children have killed themselves in prison. In 2000, three children and thirteen 18 - 20 year olds committed suicide whilst held in prison. Rates of self-harm have increased significantly in the last five years and are higher amongst young offenders than other young people. There were 944 recorded incidents of self-harm between 1998 and 1999. These figures underestimated the true extent of self-harm behaviour amongst young people in prison as many will not come forward for medical attention having harmed themselves.

Are we reaping any benefit from all this? Is this extraordinary cruelty a price worth paying? The answer is no. Recorded crime is not plummeting which is not surprising since most young offenders re-offend. Drug abuse is not receding. Neither the prisons nor society at large derive anything worthwhile from this barbarism. The latest Home Office figures show a continuing steep increase in the prison population; it could be up to 83,500 by 2008. It cost ?100,000 to build a prison space for one prisoner. The cost of the increase will be ?2 billion in capital terms alone.

This money should be spent on attacking the true problems of crime: deprivation, lack of opportunity, abuse of drugs, sexual abuse and underfunded education.

What should we be doing about all this? Well, there are three things that would make an instant difference. It has been shown that there is nothing to be gained from a prison sentence that is more than three months but less than one year. So we should release every prisoner who has completed three months and was sentenced to a year or less. Then we should release all debtors. The other day I saw a notice outside a Council office proudly proclaiming that a man had been sentenced to twenty-eight days for not paying his Council tax. And finally, we should remove from the Magistrates’ bench all the out of touch middle class know-nothings who populate it now and replace them with people who have some contact with real people with real problems in the real world.

In Your mercy You give light to the earth and all who dwell on it. So it should be for the growing, mistreated and deprived group that makes up the prison population. They may not be prisoners of conscience. They should certainly be on ours.

I have drawn heavily on the publications of the Prison Reform Trust in writing this essay.
Anthony Bilmes is a specialist in non-Court based dispute resolution and a litigation manager for a firm of London Solicitors. He is also a partner in a separate dispute resolution consultancy concentrating on human resources issues. He spent twenty years advising police officers about their financial and personal problems and was once a special constable. He would 'like us to have a justice system.'


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