Source: The Observer
Date: 9 February 2003

Our jails are full to bursting - and it's
almost all down to drugs

By David Rose

This weekend some 71,000 people are behind bars, just 1,300 short of the maximum number possible - and yet crime rates have fallen. Why? Look to the increased use of heroin and crack cocaine and the 47,000 prisoners who need detox.

The reception block at Pentonville Prison late one afternoon last week, as the Group 4 security vans arrive from court. In the gloomy yellow corridors, the stench of old vomit, mixed with cigarettes, is overpowering. Thirty men, haggard and bewildered, are already penned in the plateglass-fronted holding pen, queueing to use the two telephones. In one corner, a scabby-faced man of 28 - he looks much older - trembles uncontrollably: he's at an advanced stage of heroin withdrawal, he says, and deliberately smashed a car window in front of a policeman. He wanted to be sent to prison, because he knows that here he will get a methadone prescription.

'I can't get help outside. I've been trying to come off for two years. I'd rather be doing detox here than out on the streets, using drugs.'

The prisoners wait in the pen for a doctor's examination, for their paperwork to be processed and to exchange their own clothing for grey prison sweatsuits, socks and underwear. 'I know what you're thinking,' says my Prison Service guide. 'It is a bit Hieronymus Bosch.' On an average day, there will be 100 new arrivals. Pentonville - with 45,000 separate prisoner movements in and out of reception each year - is the busiest jail in Europe.

Last week, after a brief dip around Christmas, the result of the Government's extension of electronic tagging, the prison population of England and Wales stood at 71,149, almost back to the all-time high it reached last autumn. It is currently rising by 400 inmates a week. Just 1,300 prisoners below its maximum capacity, the Prison Service is close to breaking point. Its staff and managers are well aware of the consequences: overcrowded cells and worsening regimes; prisoners shipped far from their families; and a much greater risk of violence, riots and suicides.

By the end of March, the doors will open on three new prefabricated wings at existing jails, providing room for another 1,300 inmates. Shortly afterwards, two new prisons, with room for 1,300 more, will open at Ashford, Kent, and Heathrow. Few doubt the extra spaces will soon be filled. Since 1993, when it hit a low of 42,000, the prison population's rise has been relentless. Unlike any other public institution, the Prison Service appears to be an open-ended resource.

The paradox is that, throughout this era of rampant jail expansion, crime rates have fallen steadily: the Home Office British Crime Survey, widely considered the most reliable source, suggests an overall decrease since the mid-1990s of 22 per cent. The numbers of people convicted have also fallen, from 1.5 million in 1991 to 1.35 million 10 years later.

At the simplest level, the explanation for the prison population explosion is that there are more prisoners because magistrates and judges have got much tougher. Although the total remanded in custody has increased since 1993, from 10,000 to around 13,000, the number of convicted prisoners serving a sentence has soared from 31,000 to 58,000, of whom about 4,000 are women. (Contrary to popular belief, women are somewhat less likely to go to prison, and on average receive shorter sentences).

'The biggest thing is the public climate,' says Paul Cavadino, director of the offender rehabilitation group Nacro. 'Whether they're taking their lead from the media, politicians or conversations in their local pub, sentencers clearly believe they're supposed to pass heavier terms.'

Fewer than half those convicted at Crown courts were sentenced to immediate custody in 1993; by 2001 it was 63 per cent. Only 6 per cent convicted by magistrates went to prison in 1993, but 15 per cent in 2001. Average Crown court sentence lengths have also risen dramatically. The average burglar jailed in 1993 could expect to go away for 11 months; his counterpart in 2001 for 16.5 months. Similar increases apply to other crimes.

But why? Some argue that crimes are getting worse. 'I remember as a young barrister being involved in a GBH case,' says a senior northern judge. 'The judge was horrified, because the defendant put the boot in. These days there's a sense of relief if they've merely put the boot in. There's so much anger: road rage, neighbour rage. And people seem much more ready to use weapons.'

The 2001 Halliday report on sentencing, published by the Home Office, disagreed. Tougher sentences, it said, 'do not appear to reflect a more serious mix of offenders passing through the courts... the sentencing of similar offences and offenders has become much more severe'.

Yet, although the last Tory Home Secretary, Michael Howard, famously proclaimed that 'prison works', Labour Ministers have often urged the judiciary to use imprisonment sparingly. Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, has also warned repeatedly of the negative effects of prison overcrowding. Yet the judges aren't following their leader. Is this simply a matter of media, mood and public perception? Or are there deeper, more intractable forces at work?

The place to begin to look for answers is the nature of the prison population itself. Some penal reformers have argued that the main problem is the increase in people serving short sentences, 12 months or less, and that the jails are bursting mainly because of people whose offences are so trivial - TV licence fee evasion, for example - that they shouldn't be there at all. On closer inspection, however, this argument looks problematic.

On the one hand, it is true that a high proportion of short-sentence inmates probably wouldn't have been imprisoned 10 years ago. For example, 15 per cent of burglary convicts got a community sentence in 1993, but just 5 per cent in 2001. 'There has been a general movement downwards of the boundaries between different kinds of penalty,' says Cavadino. 'Fines are rather less common. A higher proportion go straight to probation-supervised community sentences, and a much higher proportion to prison.'

Reversing these trends, on the other hand, would not be easy, and even if it happened it would make only a marginal difference to the overall prison population. Last month Woolf was attacked by the right-wing press when he issued new sentence guidelines suggesting that burglars without previous convictions should not normally be jailed. Missing from the furore was the actual number of first-time burglars now serving sentences of fewer than four years. Unpublished Home Office research has the answer: 290 - fewer than 0.3 per cent of total jail inmates.

The research has discovered that 15 per cent of sentenced prisoners have no previous convictions - the same proportion as 10 years ago. However, if one factors out those convicted of violent assaults, sex offences, robbery and drug dealing, the proportion falls to less than 3 per cent, about 1,600 people. At the end of last year Martin Narey, the then Prisons Director-General, asked his staff to discover how many people there were in jail for not paying their TV licence. The answer on the day they looked was: one. At Pentonville, I ask staff to show me the files of 20 prisoners pulled from their stacks of cabinets at random. They cover almost every type of crime and sentence: an armed robber serving 10 years; a serial rapist-kidnapper on nine; several burglars doing 18 months. All but one have been to prison before, most of them several times, and all had previous convictions - in some cases, 30 or more. 'It's the same people, again and again,' says Jaqueline De Allie, head of inmate administration.

In 2000, the last year for which figures are available, nationally 65 per cent of prisoners had at least five previous convictions. The biggest growth in the preceding decade was in the proportion of inmates with at least 11 previous convictions, which rose from 25 to 32 per cent of the rapidly expanding total. Proof, it could be argued, of prison's ineffectiveness at reducing re-offending. On the other hand, in a sentencing climate in which judges are likely to give higher sentences to people with bad criminal records, mounting recidivism looks very significant.

We need to look again at the nature of the prison population. Much more important than the growing numbers of short-sentence inmates are the lengthening terms for people convicted of relatively serious crimes who would almost certainly have gone to prison anyway. In 1990 there were 16,154 inmates serving sentences of more than three years. By 2000 this had risen to 28,090, and it has continued to increase since. Less than a fifth, 17 per cent, of sentenced prisoners in the system are serving terms of a year or less - and with the spread of electronic tagging, most will be home within three months in any case.

Is this rise in recidivism and longer sentences just a matter of public mood? Or is it possible something real, something long-term and very serious, is happening in the nature of offending, and that the judiciary is partly reflecting it?

The anecdotal evidence is there in Pentonville, where I sit with six inmates approaching the end of their sentences. All but one have used heroin and crack cocaine; of whom all attribute their criminal acts to their habits. 'I was using �900 a day, man!' says Brian. 'If I hadn't been caught and come inside, I would have killed someone. I was smoking crack even when I was taking my kids to school.' He is doing 15 months for wounding: 'I stabbed someone. It was drug-related. I was high when I done it. He was a dealer.'

At 34, Robbie from Liverpool has been to prison 'about 10 times' before. 'I've taken heroin since I was 15. Every single crime I've done in my life has been to support my habit.' This time, he's been jailed for just eight months for shop theft, but his previous convictions include armed robbery and aggravated burglary.

Beneath the surface of official statistics, the increase in class A drug use starts to emerge as a principal cause of the increase in inmates. Last year a staggering 79.8 per cent of prisoners entering Pentonville reception had taken cocaine or heroin within the previous 48 hours.

Dr Ashvin Balabhadra runs the drug detox programme on B wing. 'When I started here in 1999, about 125 a month were coming through reception with immediate, serious substance misuse problems. Now that's up to 275 or 300. We're using the same methods to identify them: urine tests, pupil tests, information from outside and the history taken by our own staff. The local NHS sees fewer patients needing detox in a year than we deal with every month.'

The Observer has obtained national figures for new prisoners requiring immediate detox treatment. They show that they have risen steadily from about 16,000 in 1996 to 47,000 in 2002.

The official statistics for convictions for hard drug dealing and importation confirm this emerging story. Unlike every other major group of offences, where convictions have fallen or remained steady, these totals have vastly increased. In 1993, 1,852 people were convicted for trafficking in class A drugs. The figure for 2001 was 6,551.

Of course, these statistics explain some of the prison population rise on their own: most hard drug traffickers get long sentences - some of them, such as the hun dreds of desperate Third World female 'drug mules', very long indeed. But the knock-on effects will be considerable. Class A drug addicts - like those I meet in Pentonville - are often determined to kick their habit, but enormously prone to relapse, and once addicted again overwhelmingly likely to re-offend. And the biggest growth in the prison population is among the serial recidivists.

So what to do? Drugs aren't the only reason why sentences have got longer and the prison population soared. The legal 'tariffs' for some crimes, such as rape and mobile phone street robbery, are longer. 'If Ministers want to cut inmate numbers, they need to mount a sustained campaign to persuade sentencers to do just that,' says Cavadino. 'Roy Jenkins and William Whitelaw did this, and it worked.'

But this is also a challenge to so-called joined-up government. The fact that a heroin user will try to get into Pentonville in order to get the methadone that will stop his withdrawal symptoms does not betray a logical approach to this large and expensive social problem.

Here and there are glimmers of hope. One success story of the Government's penal policies are drug treatment and testing orders, which give drug-using offenders the chance to avoid prison if they undergo drug rehab and undergo weekly urine tests to prove they are drug-free. Yet in many areas the courts ran out of the budgets within a few months of the current financial year. It gave them no choice but to send eligible candidates to prison instead.

In the Pentonville gym, officer Paul Sandford gestures to his orderlies, trusted inmates rippling with muscle. I ask him the question that has stumped Home Secretary David Blunkett: why has the prison population risen?

'One word: drugs,' he says. 'These guys look pretty well, don't they? They come in here like skeletons - the crack diet, we call it. Here we give them exercise and decent food. It's like a health farm. The problem starts again at the prison gate. I hate to say it, but most of them will be back a few months later, looking like skeletons again.'

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