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The current extent and associated problems of prison overcrowding Essay

The prison population of the UK has steadily been increasing every year since 1993 when the number was 41,000 to a current figure of 82,000 (office of national statistics). This essay will discuss this doubling of prison population in the last 17 years. It will examine the suggested reasons for this rise, a statistical breakdown of the structure of the inmate population, the financial and social effects also the implications on the effectiveness of prison as a useful means of crime control.

According to the ‘Prison Reform Trust’ one of the main reasons for the growth (as apposed to more crime which has remained stable or even fallen in the same period) is the extension of the use of prison for petty offenders also the increased length of sentences. This results in ever increasingly over crowded prisons. Despite the expenditure on more prison places our prisons have remained overcrowded for more than a decade. At the same time, the reoffending rate after prison has risen from 51% in 1992 to 67% at the present time. (Prison Reform Trust).

In order to analyse the effects of overcrowding, it is useful to firstly examine the intended roles of prison. The ‘mission statement’ which is publicised in all prison establishments’ states: “Her Majesty’s Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and to help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release” (Uglow.S. p. 268) Briefly there are a number of intentions in the use of incarceration, firstly in order to set an example to society which will act as a deterrent to crime; ‘Justice must be seen to be done’. Containment: while a criminal is removed from society he/she is no longer a threat and is unable to commit further criminal offences in the community. Rehabilitation: in order to enable an offender to fit back into society, this may involve such measures as an introduction or re-introduction to the work ethic.

A large number of the prison population are given the opportunity to work and earn a small wage which can be used to buy extra necessities within the prison. Another role of the prison is to teach the inmates discipline or self-discipline in order that they may have more self control on re-introduction to the outside world. Overcrowding in many cases leads to a cell designed for one inmate often being occupied by two, most of these ‘Single’ cells have unscreened toilets, which does not provide even the most basic human dignity. In a search for empty places inmates are often moved to different prisons which can be anywhere in the country.

In 2001, 37,000 prisoners were being held over 50 miles away from home, for 5,000 of these the distance was more than 150 miles (Howard League for Penal Reform). This relocation often leads to a displacement, not only physically, but also emotionally from society, friends and family and can directly bring about a breakdown of relationship, marriage, child bonding and more. All of the above could make re-integration into society much more difficult to achieve, thus leading to further exclusion for the offender. This is one marked effect of overcrowding in the British Prison system.

It is not unusual that an inmate in today’s prisons will spend 23 hours per day in a cell, usually multi-occupied (up to three persons in a cell designed for just one). Although there are opportunities available to prisoners to spend part of their day unlocked these are restricted by sheer volume of numbers. A prisoner is entitled to one hour exercise per day although this is subject to the Governors discretion and can be cancelled by factors such as staff shortage, weather conditions or security “Security referrers to the obligation of the prison service to prevent inmates escaping. Control is the obligation of the prison service to prevent prisoners being disruptive” (Newburn.T. p.689)

There are opportunities to work in jobs such as kitchens, laundry, cleaning or assisting officers in limited roles concerning day to day duties involved in running the prison, these may be in reception where new inmates are issued with prison clothes, blankets and cutlery. The prison library is often organised by trusted inmates. All of the above roles or jobs are given to inmates serving substantial sentences because there would be little point training an inmate with only a short sentence. However these job opportunities in prison are very limited in number, an inmate can apply for work at the beginning of his/her sentence but never be offered any position because of the sheer number of applicants (also the length of his/her sentence). Association is another opportunity to escape from the confinements of a cramped cell, this is when inmates on a particular ‘landing’ are allowed out to socialise with each other.

Activities such as a game of pool or perhaps table tennis are available but again access to these facilities is restricted or limited by the volume of numbers of inmates and staff, for example a landing consisting of 20 single cells ergo has 20 inmates, but when the cells have 2 or 3 prisoners then one landing can hold as many as 60 inmates, and therefore access to association is often limited by staff availability and security restrictions. Religion: all prisoners have the right under the human rights legislation to follow their religion, with church services for main denominations being held weekly. Inmates can often see this as an opportunity to once again escape from the tedium of confinement and will often feign religious fervour in an effort to achieve relief. Once again though access to weekly chapel or church is restricted by volume and staffing.

Education: Most prisoners have access to some form of education system; although mostly remedial there are sometimes opportunities to learn basic I.T. skills or other specialised subjects. This system also is often considered by authorities to be subject to abuse by inmates (an excuse to get out of the cell) also access to the prison education system is limited by availability of teaching staff, classroom space and the amount of security available at a given time. Education is always secondary to security and once again is affected by overcrowding. Access to Open University is permitted and encouraged (especially for long term prisoners) but is hampered by a lack of space in cells and poor or inadequate library facilities.

Population: This essay will now look at how the prison population is made up, taking into account male, female, adult child, ethnicity, culture and religion.

Women in prison: Although the number of women in prison is very small in comparison to the number of males, 6% (Home office) this in itself creates a unique set of problems. There are 14 female only prisons in the U.K. and these are geographically spaced. This means that a female prisoner may be serving her sentence a considerable distance away from her family and loved ones. Another problem special to the female prisoner is that of childcare, often there is no male partner or substitute to look after the children, subsequently the children will be taken into the care of the social services, thus adding more stress on the incarcerated female. This anxiety often leads to self harm. Young people (Juvenile offenders): make up a sizeable proportion of the prison population and once again are subject to a specific set of problems.

There are approximately 2,600 young men and 700 young women in custody (H.M. Prison service) they are held in young offenders institutions (Y.O.I’s) some of the main problems in Y.O.I’s are violence, bullying or even sexual abuse by older or more established prisoners which can often lead to despair, young offenders make up roughly half of all self abusing inmates and the suicide rate is higher in proportion to adults. Prison officers have a responsibility to keep young prisoners safe. This is made more difficult when institutions are over occupied, again security is the first priority. Black and Ethnic minorities account for a disproportionately large percentage of inmate population in comparison with black and ethnic minorities in society (McLaughlin Muncie 2001) A breakdown of the prison population in the U.K. shows that white males make up 73% with black and ethnics (B.E.M.) making up the remaining 27% (Home Office)

This can lead to race division within prison which then creates further problems for prison staff either by segregating of races or by having to control racial tension between inmates in a multi occupied cell, for example when a cell has three occupants, two may be white and one B.E.M. or vice versa. If the occupation of a cell is defined by race colour or religion then this could lead to disharmony on that particular landing. If the prisons were not overcrowded and the ‘single cell’ system was applied this could help alleviate some of the racial tension. Religion: “The chaplaincy is committed to serving the needs of prisoners religious beliefs by engaging in all human experience, by respecting the integrity of each tradition and discipline” (H.M. Prison Service).

With the current multi-culture in the U.K. it would be impracticable to have a distinct place of worship designated to each individual religion or belief. Usually a chapel or church is the same building shared at different times of the day predominantly by Christian denominations. As pointed out earlier in this essay sometimes this system is abused henceforth poses some security risk, because allowing a large congregation of inmates entails maintaining the ‘inmate-staff ratio’. When the overcrowding factor comes into play then this is usually difficult or impossible to maintain. Hence religious following suffers as a consequence of over crowding. Another factor that should be considered is the increase in gang violence in U.K. prisons, as the judicial system hardens increasingly in its treatment of gang related crime, so the gang population within prisons grows. This involves some harsh even cruel initiations like skin cutting, tattoos and violence on other inmates. Leaving a gang can also result in violent recriminations from other gang members’ sometimes even death.

Prison staff often struggle to deal with these issues especially when combined with overcrowding. It could also be argued that there are too many prison inmates that should be in mental institutions rather than prison. It is suggested that prisoners who suffer from mental illness or sexual dysfunction are not being properly rehabilitated in the prison system and are being released early, consequently repeating their offence or committing a harsher offence. However with the appropriate treatment and medicines these offenders would be able to function better when released. Improper medical care is a growing concern to groups such as ‘Amnesty International’ as they feel that some prisoners are not being properly treated for illnesses that could be life threatening such as cancer, aids, hepatitis and other infectious diseases. It is interesting to consider one further cause of the problem, the one of the judicial system within the prison regime. The prison system has its own form of the law courts, independent of accepted (or known) criminal justice.

When a prisoner is sentenced to a period in prison, for example two years, with good behaviour the sentence would be reduced by half. The courts that impose the sentence are well aware of this fact and so they sentence accordingly. To earn this reduction the inmate must abide by prison rules and be of good behaviour. Now where this system fails (and this contributes to overcrowding in the prisons) is that the prison system itself i.e. governors, wardens are in a position to administer justice, this power can often be misused because the prison administration has not had proper training in the administering of justice, an example may be that a convict disobeying a simple prison rule such as failure to keep his cell clean or perhaps not shaving in the morning could lead to a penalty of maybe one months loss of ‘remission’.

This in no circumstances reflects the reality of life in the ‘outside’ world as nobody would be sentenced to a month in prison for such a petty misdemeanour. If this system of justice is allowed to operate without any external control then it becomes open to abuse in that a sole person i.e. governor becomes judge, jury and executioner, yet this arbitrary system remains unhindered and must therefore contribute to the overcrowding in today’s prisons in that, as a direct consequence of the overcrowding the inmate may possibly not get access to bathing or shaving facilities, therefore the consequence of overcrowding becomes an ever perpetuating problem.

Taking all of these situations into account one could see that the problem of overcrowding in U.K. prisons, in effect, is a major cause of stress for both inmates and staff. This essay should therefore look at the effects of stress due to overcrowding in the prison system. “Crowding research concentrates mainly on the spatial density and social density of crowding. Spatial density is defined as the amount of space per person in a contained area. Social density is defined as the number of individuals sharing a particular area and is considered to be the leading factor which contributes most to the adverse effects of crowding” (Toch, 1997. p.31). But crowding could be considered ‘relative’ in that it is only indirectly related to the number of people sharing a particular space. It is possible to feel crowded in the presence of very few people such as in a lift in an otherwise empty building similarly it is possible to feel ‘un-crowded’ in the presence of many people for example when all are heading in the same direction e.g. at the entrance to a theatre. The significant element appears to be a form of frustration in achievement of some purpose because of the actual presence of others for example ‘road rage’.

In conclusion it can be said that a prison or confined space can have an adverse effect on some inmates because in these conditions the situation can become chronic, people already prone to antisocial behaviour are compressed, due to overcrowding there can develop an absence of personal control, a lack of hygiene, idleness and boredom can become prevalent. Added to this, there are other contributory factors that can be a major feature in the discussion of stress. Significantly, there are a finite number of material goods to go around, so the same space and resources are made to stretch even further. Opportunities for advancement or training to participate in activities aimed at self improvement or rehabilitative programmes such as academic teaching or vocational training are limited. This lack of occupation can often lead to inmate emotional instability often reinforcing the maxim that ‘Idleness breeds contempt and disruptive behaviour’ (Cox, Paulus and McCain p.1149).

The lack of resources caused directly by overcrowding can apply to anything that a prisoner may legitimately require, such as: washroom facilities, library, association, the things that anybody in society may take for granted every day and indeed the things that could be said to be necessities of normal living. This deprivation can lead to frustration or even anger at being denied that which is considered just. Another factor being that this situation can lead to conflict or competition for these limited resources sometimes leading to aggression and violence. This essay has attempted to point out some of the major effects of overcrowding in U.K prisons. (2587 words)

Cox. V., Paulus P & McCain G (1984) Prison crowding Research. American Psychologist. New York. McLaughlin Muncie (2001)Controlling Crime. 2nd Edition.
Sage Publications. Milton Keynes.
Newburn.T (2007) Criminology. Willan Publishing. Devon

Toch H. (1977) Living in Prison: The ecology of survival. The Oxford Free Press. London. Uglow. S. (1995) Criminal Justice. Sweet and Maxwell Ltd. London.

http://www.amnesty.org.uk/ 5/1/2010
http://www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk/ 12/12/2009
http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk 29/12/2009
http://www.howardleague.org/ 18/12/2009
http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/ 18/12/2009

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