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Boris Johnson thinks building more prisons can curtail violence – he couldn’t be any more wrong

Once again the nation’s politicians have ramped up the law and order rhetoric. For anyone even vaguely paying attention this will all feel very familiar. In 1993, prime minister John Major urged us to “condemn a little more and understand a little less” when considering the response to violent crime.

New Labour’s response was to one-up the Tories with a “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” approach, introducing an array of new police and court powers to ensure even low-level offenders could be put away for years.

Boris’s “new” proposal to create 10,000 new prison places was, in fact, announced by Michael Gove three years ago, albeit cushioned by the slightly fluffier language of “rehabilitation”.

Johnson joins a long tradition of politicians ventriloquising victims of violence to drum up support for their own security agenda. While he claims that his proposals are what victims want, meaningful support for victims of violence is almost non-existent in the UK.

Temi Mwale, an anti-violence practitioner in London has detailed her attempts to get mental health support for children who have been stabbed, only to be faced with a two-year waiting list. Last year, a 16 year old boy who missed his GSCE exams due to being stabbed in the chest, was forced to resit a full year of schooling after the school refused to support his request to be awarded his predicted grades of As and A*s.

When it comes to other forms of serious violence, the situation is much the same. After years of defunding, whole areas of England and Wales now have no refuge provision to enable those experiencing domestic violence to escape to safety or support services to enable victims of domestic and sexual violence to heal from their trauma.

A glance at the nature of our prison system shows us that victims of violence are more likely to receive punishment from the criminal justice system than redress. Twenty-nine per cent of adults in prison were victims of abuse as children and 24 per cent were taken into care. Fifty-three per cent of women in prison report being victims of domestic violence.

The life histories of people in prison are more often than not characterised by a toxic mix of state abandonment and state violence. Too many are denied educational support, stable housing or proper healthcare, only to have hundreds of thousands of pounds then spent on arresting and imprisoning them later in life.

And in prison, the violence continues. There was almost one death per day in prisons in England and Wales during 2018. Around a third of these are self-inflicted. The other two thirds are categorised as “natural causes”, though we know from numerous inquests and reports that “natural causes” is often a euphemism for severe medical neglect.

In 2015, nineteen year old Jordan Hullock died from meningitis in HMP Doncaster. He spent several days in his cell unable to move or speak, going long periods without food or water before he was provided with medical attention. By the time he was taken to hospital, it was too late.

Jordan’s case is shocking but by no means unique. Those labelled as “criminals” are deemed disposable by the criminal justice system, and the hundreds of thousands of families affected are just collateral damage. If Johnson wanted to stop the most prolific of the “thugs who believe they can destroy lives with impunity”, the stop and searches would start at the Ministry of Justice.

Unsurprisingly, all of this violence does nothing to prevent more violence. Not only are re-offending rates stubbornly high, but studies that compare various nation’s criminal justice systems demonstrate that imprisonment rates cannot be reliably linked to crime rates.

When it comes to sexual violence, one of the most pernicious and widespread forms of harm in our society, the prison system is demonstrably indifferent to the need for prevention. Buzzfeed recently reported that the Ministry of Justice refused to release publish research conducted by one of its own academics showing that the Sex Offender Treatment Programme used in prisons was associated with higher levels of re-offending. The department allowed the programme to continue for five years while attempting to change the methodology of the research for more favourable results.

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However, while Johnson’s boost to prison places and police numbers won’t achieve his stated aim of improving public safety, they could potentially serve to prop up his leadership and increase his popularity.  

With movements for social and climate justice gaining momentum and an increasingly politicised public confronting its second unelected prime minister, expanding the capacity of the criminal justice system is a no-brainer for Johnson. As mayor of London, he was intolerant to protest and dissent, famously spending hundreds of thousands on three water cannons. Despite the media portrayal of him, Johnson is not a particularly popular politician. More police on the streets will help him manage the grassroots movements that oppose him.

Since their invention, prisons have served the purpose of masking social problems by removing the individuals affected most. The austerity narrative may be dwindling, but the soaring inequality and destitution remain. More prison places and more police will allow Johnson to sweep away and warehouse the visible casualties of years of Tory rule, and at the same time build political capital from the spectacle of “removing dangerous criminals from our streets”.

And then there’s the profits. As others have pointed out, the prison system is an industry that will continue to produce returns, even through the instability of a no-deal Brexit. Construction giants such as Kier stand to make millions from building the new prisons with private companies bidding for government contracts to manage them. Not to mention the other opportunities such as contracts for catering and prison education, and use of cheap prison labour. Johnson, who has promised to be the “most pro-business PM” ever, no doubt sees an opportunity to placate some of those in the business sector worried by the potential impact of no deal.

While we have seen an immediate response from those in the prison reform sector, the usual pleas to shift the focus to rehabilitation over punishment are not likely to have much of an impact on either policy or public opinion. The never-ending punishment versus rehabilitation debate unfortunately reinforces a lie that has been told since the development of a national prison system in the 1800s: that the criminal justice system is about public safety.

In 19th century Britain and its colonies, the system functioned to prevent resistance to an exploitative economic regime, as well as to deal with those who were disposable to it by labelling them as pathological and hiding them from view.

Today, it plays much the same role, appropriating the pain of victims for political legitimacy while simultaneously abandoning them and too often locking them up. It’s clear that the system is not a method to prevent violence but to ensure that violence maintains the social order rather than challenging it. If we really want a safer society, we must look for solutions elsewhere.

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