13:44, June 21 220 0 theguardian.com

2017-06-21 13:44:03
What our prison population says about our society

The fact that prisons are now the largest provider of residential care for elderly men in the UK is just one more sign of the degraded “society” we live in (Buried alive: the old men stuck in Britain’s prisons, 20 June). But what is to be done? There is no chance of politicians taking meaningful action, in thrall as they are to the whims of a vocal, atavistic, minority. Change must come from the individuals who combine to put these people in prison. The criminal justice system is a Fordist factory in which the criminal, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, judges and juries perform their allotted role in the process with barely a thought for the sense of the outcome. “The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” said Dostoevsky. He might have added: “And by the actions of the people who put them there.”

Andrew Dobson

Keele, Staffordshire

Amelia Hill – rightly – examines the shameful drift masquerading as policy over our increasingly geriatric prison population. In the name of sanity, empty the prisons. There are so many non-violent prisoners safe for release; better to focus on those who must remain, and to prepare those suitable for a meaningful return to the community. Far too routinely, prisoners are decanted onto the streets with every prospect of their boomeranging back. I put the cocktail of political inaction down to two parts cowardice for what the shock jocks might say, and one part vengeful instinct. It has to stop, before we should become trapped in a vicious, money-swallowing vortex as with the United States’ prison estate.

Malcolm Fowler

Solicitor and criminal defence advocate

For a “long read” there was a lot missing in Amelia Hill’s article. Clearly, there are very real practical problems for some elderly prisoners and those prison staff who have both a duty of care towards them and an overriding responsibility for security. Hill gives scant reference to prison officers, but no mention of the probation service. Given that all long-term prisoners are released on licence supervised by the probation service (and many are housed in approved premises – hostels – staffed 24/7 by probation staff), this seems an oversight. No mention either of the role undertaken by police risk assessors – all sexual and/or violent offenders released on licence have police attention both before and after release. What about MAPPA, the multi-agency public protection arrangements, basically a tri-partite (probation, police and social services) system for assessing and monitoring risk and advising on possible enforcement? Where child and/or vulnerable victims are involved, the input of social services has so often been crucial in my experience (40 years in probation). Finally, no mention about elderly female prisoners either.

Mick Gough


Now is the ideal time to advocate a moratorium on prison building and plan for a radical reduction in the prison population. There can be little doubt that we sentence too many people to prison. At a rate of 146 per 100,000 of the population, England and Wales have the highest prisoner population in western Europe. Prison populations have more than doubled since the early 1990s, while the recorded crime rate has, in the main, gone down. Although prison populations are so high because of punitive sentencing practices, we should also recognise that numbers are intimately tied to social and economic inequalities. There is strong evidence that the lower the spending of a country’s GDP on welfare, the higher the prison populations. Calling for a moratorium on prison building not only places pressure on the government but also strengthens calls for increased welfare spending on the NHS, education and mental health.

Dr David Scott

Bury, Greater Manchester

Join the debate – email guardian.letters@theguardian.com

Read more Guardian letters – click here to visit gu.com/letters