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Prison doesn’t work: A case study from the country of its birth

Despite their ubiquity across much of the world, all reputable studies, including my own, show that penitentiaries crush and brand their inhabitants, writes Dr Matt Bach.

user iconDr Matt Bach 22 April 2024 The Bar
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Almost exactly thirty years ago, Michael Howard famously declared that black is white and night is day: “prison works”, said the then home secretary at the Tory conference in Blackpool.

That must be why the current British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, is introducing a raft of tough-on-crime measures like “automatic” prison sentences for repeat shoplifters and fines for homeless people who are particularly smelly, honestly. I can’t think of any other possible reason to so disproportionately punish a bunch of poor people who are often too young to vote at – you know – elections, like the one Britain will have later this year.

Perhaps because my wife and I have just relocated from Australia to Brighton – another wonderful, gaudy, seaside resort that, like Blackpool, has a controversial history of Conservative Party conferences – my thoughts have recently been focusing on the almost 100,000 poor souls currently rotting behind bars in the United Kingdom.


An excellent briefing paper from the House of Commons Library, published last September, places this egregious number in some context. Currently, the UK has a prison population of 95,526. The number of prisoners has grown steadily since the end of the pandemic; back, almost, to the record levels seen prior to COVID-19.

For those of you worried that the government is clearly being too kind to petty thieves, junkies and migrants, fear not. The prison population will soon overtake the pre-COVID-19 record.

As Georgina Sturge of the House of Commons Library demonstrates, our desire to lock up every poor person or immigrant who looks sideways comes at a cost, rather a high one. Each year, it costs about 31,500 quid to house one prisoner in England, rising to over 44,000 in Northern Ireland. Imagine what these many millions could do to fix the NHS, social services, or crumbling schools.

Currently, there’s much debate about the merit or otherwise of various British exports. You know what I mean: democracy, capitalism, and property rights, but also racism, a rigid class system and inequality, even genocide – that sort of thing.

Back in Australia, how we deal with the shocking history of discrimination against Aboriginal people – following British colonisation – rightly continues to dominate both the political and the dinner-table discussion.

Notwithstanding stiff competition, let me lodge my vote for the most destructive British export: the penitentiary.

Back in 1791, Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” was published. The utilitarian philosopher’s idea was incredibly radical: to use the power of the state to change men’s souls. To that end, Bentham devised a building in which all prisoners could be constantly observed.

As the famous French philosopher Michel Foucault has said, this observation – when married with strict discipline and religious indoctrination – was supposed to “grind men honest”, creating “docile bodies”.

Sadly for everyone, it didn’t, and it doesn’t. Instead, panoptic prisons – called penitentiaries – achieve exactly the opposite despite their ubiquity across much of the world. All reputable studies, including my own, show that penitentiaries crush and brand their inhabitants.

They actively foster future crimes instead of preventing them. They create hardened offenders of the young, the poor, and those simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In short, penitentiaries are the worst social policy failure of the last 200 years.

What, exactly, should we do instead? I hear you asking. Recently, I got myself into some hot water while trying to answer this question. While still a Liberal politician, I wrote an opinion article for The Guardian in which I argued that youth prisons could, and should, be shut down overnight.

That would be an important start, as we know young people who have contact with the justice system are infinitely more likely to offend as adults. At a fraction of the cost of incarceration, we could provide the social, welfare and health services that vulnerable young people need.

Likewise, for the many non-violent adults currently incarcerated in the United Kingdom, a beefed-up social and welfare response would be so much better for everyone.

Look, Howard was not completely wrong. In the most anaemic sense, prison works. While those who have committed crimes are off the street, it’s impossible for them to carry out further depredations – in the community, anyway.

But at what cost? Official statistics show that more than a quarter of prisoners are known to commit further crimes within just one year of release, making more – counterproductive and costly – stays inside almost inevitable, and the community less safe.

We like to think we live in enlightened times, and we deride those who ruled in the Victorian era for both their puritanism and the inequality they tolerated. We’re not alone. Contemporary Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli rightly ridiculed Bentham’s influential creed as “brutilitarianism”.

Yet, since Queen Victoria’s death, Britain’s prison population, proportionately, has doubled; even as we still use Bentham’s panoptic device, the penitentiary. In Australia, it’s the same. We may not like to admit it, but we’re so like the Victorians – just crueller.

After a disastrous trial of over 200 years, it’s finally the time to say – nay, scream – the truth: Prison. Doesn’t. Work.

Dr Matt Bach is the former shadow attorney-general of Victoria.