Prison works? No thanks, Jack

6:47 pm - June 30th 2010

by Neil Robertson    

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As Justice Secretary, it often felt like Jack Straw was motivated more by a desire to protect the public from liberals than from criminals.

In his inglorious time in government, Straw’s Labour Party oversaw a record rise in the prison population, dangerous levels of overcrowding and a disastrous early release scheme which completely battered public confidence in the courts.

He ignored British and European law on prisoners’ voting rights, fed us policies packed with pure populist junk and blithely suggested that those who complained simply didn’t care enough about the victims of crime.

So it’s entirely fitting that in his well-deserved stint in opposition, Straw has taken to the Daily Mail to warn once more of the middle-class liberal ‘hand-wringers’ who’ll soon fling open the prison gates and try to cure hardened thugs with hugs & therapy.

As Straw tells it, crime only began to fall in the mid-90?s because of the draconian sentencing regime imposed by Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard. Labour continued his ‘good work’ for the next 13 years and have declining crime rates to show for it, at the small cost of a massively expanded prison population.

Now, thanks to an ‘alliance’ between Ken Clarke and 57 Lib Dem MPs, all that good work threatens to be reversed, replaced by liberal ‘hand-wringing’ (a phrase he uses four times) and ignorance of the true cost of crime.

He is, of course, being utterly disengenuous. The speech given by the new Justice Secretary was not the result of some Rasputin-style whispering from Liberal Democrats, but a continuation of Tory policy which existed before there was even a prospect of a coalition.

It was the Tories’ ‘Prisons with a Purpose’ paper which suggested they were finally ready to ditch the ‘prison works’ dogma of Howard and raise the profile of rehabilitation as a means of reducing crime.

The reason Straw invokes some liberal conspiracy is the same reason the Lib Dems have been invoked as boogeymen by numerous shadow ministers in recent weeks – in the hope that they can turn ‘liberal’ into the new ‘tory’.

There’s still much uncertainty in the coalition’s plan for penal reform, and what happens in the criminal justice system is inevitably influenced by the state of the economy and the availability of housing & jobs for newly-released prisoners.

Change of policy, even from the rotten one they inherited, might not necessarily mean change for the better. But what sets the coalition apart from Labour, even at this early stage, is the intention of getting the prison population under control.

For Straw, leaving government with a prison population of over 84,000 is almost something to be proud of; for Clarke and the coalition, it is a problem which needs to addressed.

But we should, perhaps, save a few meagre words of thanks for Straw as he whinges into obscurity, for he leaves us with clear dividing lines between his departed government and its successor.

We can either long for the return of the ‘prison works’ dogma of Howard & Straw, which led to massive overcrowding, early prisoner release and an inexorable rise in the prison population, or we can hope that a more pragmatic, rehabilitation-focused regime will replace it and help bring that population under control. I know which side I’m rooting for.

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About the author
Neil Robertson is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He was born in Barnsley in 1984, and through a mixture of good luck and circumstance he ended up passing through Cambridge, Sheffield and Coventry before finally landing in London, where he works in education. His writing often focuses on social policy or international relations, because that's what all the Cool Kids write about. He mostly blogs at: The Bleeding Heart Show.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Crime ,Labour party ,Westminster

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Reader comments

But how will we ever build up a respectable population of enslaved workers like the Americans have if we don’t get more prisoners? Our competitiveness on the world stage is at stake here…

2. Shatterface

I’m glad Lib Con published this article as a balance to David Semple’s drivel earlier. I’ve read some offensive, illiberal crap on here but arguing we should keep people behind bars because there’s no work for them really takes the piss.

3. Matt Munro

It is true though that crime fell under new lab. Agree it may or may not be due to other causes, but it’s hard to ignore.

4. DisgustedOfTunbridgeWells

Rising Crime – this is the reality of Britain today.

Name that tune.

5. Carl Packman

Shatterface, you failed to realise on Dave’s comments thread however that his article provided that balance as much as this one.

Isn’t it really amusing how some people who were criticising new labour’s record on law and order for being too liberal and being responsible for an alleged rise in crime (broken britain stuff), all of a sudden now discover that crime fell under labour and that this is the result of their prison works approach.

When the cuts to welfare start to bite crime rates will increase. That’s when things become interesting, especially if police budgets have been cut too.

The credit boom of the 90s correlated with a decrease in crime for the simple reason that people were better off. Now that bubble has burst the economic driver for crime will return.

If crime were simply linked to economic well being, then there would be a surge in crime due. However, as it has not increased in the last couple of years (when the economy has not done well) then you either need to argue it lags, like unemployment (which then risks arguing unemployment causes crime, a particularly insulting argument) or argue for other causes as well.

Crime is falling now due to a number of reasons, some of which are often ignored: because it is more difficult; less worthwhile (how much does a stolen DVD player or iPod fetch); and that the police are better at striking at the heart of criminal gangs. Apart from prohibition type crimes (drugs basically), where the existence of a market is key (and which will therefore decrease somewhat with the rest of the economy), most crimes that seem to be going up now are crimes which are not all about making money – assaults etc.

And this makes the Conservative policy sensible – those who do relatively minor crimes need turning round, not punishing, giving a future, not consigning to no future. Obviously those committing assualts and the like should be in prison, with reform as a secondary issue; they are not the issue, despite the attempts of the mendacious Mr Straw to conflate different sorts of criminals.

which then risks arguing unemployment causes crime, a particularly insulting argument

It seems odd to misspell “obviously true” as “particularly insulting”. But we all have our quirks, I guess.

My conspiracy theory: the Tory criminal justice plans will save money, be less barbaric, and not have very much impact on crime one way or another. At the same time, the rise in unemployment will drive a major increase in crime. After five years, right-wing idiots everywhere will have “data proving” that liberal approaches don’t work and we need to go back to jailing, flogging, etc, and the Tories will revert to Howard/Straw-ish politics.

Ever since this shrinking of the prison population was announced, which I actually think is a good thing, I’ve been waiting with bated breath for a further announcement to dramatically increase drug/alcohol rehab beds and overhaul of our woefully underfunded/ineffective mental health system.

But no, nothing, and I have a suspicion that there won’t be anything because the private sector is apparently going to sort all that out of course with jobs flipping burgers/stacking shelves/mopping floors – that’s sure to help recently released prisoners with their problems.

I think the government should perhaps talk to their own Inspector of Prisons for some insight on the problems prisoners suffer. Simply sending them down the Job Centre, whilst apparently ‘progessive’, probably won’t help.

Idiots, ‘progessive’ or not.

It seems the Labour front bench’s plan for opposition is to attack the govt from the right, and focus all fire on the corrupting influence of those evil LibDems, without whom the Tories would do just fine.

Good luck with that. Any remaining Labourites to the LEFT of the government will be welcome in the Green Party.

Listen to the Prisoners Voice.

According to Mike Fitzgerald: “The prisoner has realized that the two most important sources of relief are primarily prisoners’ revolt and then successful litigation”.

Neil Robertson correctly points out that Jack Straw: “ignored British and European law on prisoners’ voting rights”.

The Strangeways Prison riot of April 1990 occurred as a result of the authorities blocking prisoners from airing their legitimate grievances at the lack of justice in prisons.

The coalition must remove the obstacle in the path of the best way forward to fully comply with Hirst v UK (No2), namely, failing to amend s.3 of RPA 1983.

It’s a long hot Summer, the dry long grass may well combust into flames. The grapevine is already humming with the question: “If the coalition does not make a public announcement very soon, should we be more pro-active?”.

13. Yurrzem!

@8 Watchman

If you think that a recession reduces the illegal drugs market you are seriously living in fantasy land. Of course, we all knew that anyway.

14. Watchman


I have no idea whether a recession affects the market for prohibited substances, although logically it will reduce demand, unless as seems likely if your are correct other factors are in play. But can you tell me what a recession does do to the drug market then? Because your post lacked the evidence to dispute my suggestion, and we are therefore stuck with two equally-possibly fantastic solutions, and no way to decide between them.

I guess you have more knowledge, but would kind of like some evidence, if only so I know in future (a sector of the (black) economy that increases during recessions would be a good thing to know, especially if you believe in legalisation).

15. margin4error

Crime fell under Labour largely irrespective of prison occupancy levels. It was the rising living standards and wages of the poor that really made a difference, as it does all over the world.

I guess it will be interesting to see how the Tories respond to rising crime in three years time when their budgets have reversed the trend. But I wouldn’t bet against more prisons.

Meanwhile, we can continue to hope Labour bring in a leader brave enough to offer a different way of doing things. Though it is worth noting that Labour’s core support is not particularly liberal on crime and punishment – which is understandable as the working classes tend to be the victims of most crime.


‘I have no idea whether a recession affects the market for prohibited substances, although logically it will reduce demand, unless as seems likely if your are correct other factors are in play.’

That is one of the most wooden-topped things I’ve seen posted…. what planet are you on?

Of course other factors come into play and there isn’t going to be this magical ‘evidence’ because there are all sorts of drug addicts – most of whom would prefer to remain anonymous strangely enough.

Some drug addicts don’t even know they’re addicts but, sadly, I don’t have the figures for these people.

The last figure to be bandied around was 320,000 and they cost society £15 billion according to the UKDPC but, as I said, these figures are normally meaningless – it’s a bit like producing figures for the number of dead in Iraq (resulting from the invasion and aftermath). Anyway, now I’ve given you a source you can go and feast on ‘reliable’ evidence for your posts.

Referring to your point on legalisation, ah ha, is this where all those private sector jobs are going to be miraculously created?????? Is this what Slasher has got up his sleave, is this his wildcard?

No wonder Liam Fox has insisted that Cameron was WRONG in saying that troops would be out of Afghanistan by 2015 when, in fact, they’d be the last to leave…. in order to secure the supply for our new thriving ‘narcotics’ sector.

17. Yurrzem!

@14 Watchman

The interesting thing about the drugs market is that it’s practically completely insulated from the wider economy. In fact it seems inflation-proof too.

Given your faith in markets I’m surprised you haven’t looked into it more, its the most entrepreneurial, unregulated and innovative market there is. I thought you liked such things?

18. Rhys Williams

This stand on prisons in bravest decision by the Coalition.
Easy to put public sector workers out of work but to take on the Daily Mail right on one of their pet subjects takes real balls.
As for Straw , appalling

The interesting thing about the drugs market is that it’s practically completely insulated from the wider economy.

D’you reckon? Total number of drug users – probably true that it’s insulated. Total spending on cocaine – almost certainly not insulated. Recreational coke users will cut back; serious addicts will trade down to cheaper-and-nastier highs (speed and meth, presumably), and prices will fall.

In fact it seems inflation-proof too.

That side of the coin isn’t at all surprising – drugs are internationally-traded, processed agricultural or basic chemical entities with no intellectual property protection, brand value or tax – or precisely the kind of product that’s had its price held down the most by globalisation…

20. Rhys Williams

Regards to comment 18
It seems the Tories are backtracking on this and intend to build more prisons.

I shouldn’t be surprised.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Prison works? No thanks, Jack

  2. Kelly

    RT @libcon: Prison works? No thanks, Jack

  3. sunny hundal

    @curtismclellan not if your policies to fight crime and terror end up backfiring

  4. Palmer 1984

    RT @libcon: Prison works? No thanks, Jack

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