Making the moral case for abolishing long-term prison sentences

Prisons are soul-destroying pits of human misery that can lead to atrophy, stasis and trauma, writes David Scott. Andy Stelman says there needs to be a rethink about recall as the default sanction for a failure to comply

David Gauke was right to argue that there is “a very strong case to abolish” short-term (six-month) prison sentences (Time to end short prison terms, says justice secretary, 19 February). The minister is also undoubtedly correct to highlight the extent to which prisons are failing, but the current crisis will not be solved by abolishing short-term sentences alone. Since at least the 1940s, there have been numerous scientific studies unequivocally demonstrating that long-term prison sentences are extremely dangerous to human wellbeing. Long-term imprisonment, especially when it involves periods of solitary confinement, can lead to the deterioration of the body and the ruination of the mind. Prisons are soul-destroying pits of human misery that can lead to atrophy, stasis, trauma and suicidal thoughts and actions. The longer that people, either as prisoners or staff, spend within these toxic and hostile penal environments, the more likely they are to experience long-term harm. Long-term prisoners can become ghosts of their former selves and many find it extremely difficult to build sustainable lives and relationships on release. Damaged by the prison experience, they become isolated, abandoned and forgotten. On moral grounds at least, the minister should be reminded that there is also a very strong case to abolish long-term prison sentences too.
Dr David Scott
The Open University

• It is encouraging to hear that the current secretary of state for justice wishes to explore the viability of expunging six months and less prison sentences from the statute book, but it is also important to hear the words of what sounds like despair from the Conservative MP cited in the article. One aspect of the current penal policy that was not mentioned is the effect on the prison population of recall for non-compliance. In 2016 the Ministry of Justice published a report entitled Story of the Prison Population 1993 to 2016. In the first year of the study, 1993, there were about 150 recalled offenders in the whole prison population. By 2016 this had risen to nearly 7,000. I would suggest that there are two main – and interconnected – reasons for this. The first was the effect of four acts of parliament (Crime and Disorder Act 1998; Criminal Justice Act 2003; Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008; and Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014), all of which increased the legal powers of recall. The second, and associated reason, is the need for governments of all persuasions to demonstrate to the apparently ever sceptical public that probation “has teeth”. In other words, it would stand no “mucking about” by offenders “lucky enough” to have been given a community sentence but who transgressed the terms of that sentence.

Given that offenders frequently come from very emotionally and socially disordered backgrounds (taken into care, lack of schooling, addiction, abuse etc), it is hardly surprising that they are going to find conforming to imposed rules quite hard – after all, a failure to do so is what led them before the courts in the first place. There needs to be a rethink about recall as the default sanction for a failure to comply. Otherwise Mr Gauke’s desire to reduce the prison population will simply be pie in the sky.
Andy Stelman
Former assistant chief probation officer

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