Prisons are failing. It’s time to find an alternative

prison 2019

(Unsplash, 2019)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Baillie Aaron, Founder & CEO, Spark Inside


In recent years, the use of imprisonment as a response to crime and violence has risen steadily across the globe.

More than 10 million people around the world are currently behind bars. As our social systems are being reshaped by Globalization 4.0, it is time to consider whether our current approach to prison and punishment is keeping us safe.

Most criminal justice systems around the world are increasingly reliant on prisons. Globally, the number of prisoners has grown by almost 20% since the turn of the millennium and continues to rise.

The players involved in the prison industry include hedge funds, architects, utilities and construction companies, and a number of multinationals employing free or reduced-cost prison labour.

Overall, prison expenses make up a significant portion of government budgets: in the US, $81 billion is spent annually on public correctional agencies alone (not including private prisons).

Image: Prison Policy Initiative

Is the investment in prisons justified?

One major consideration is whether prisons are effective or not in achieving their stated objective of keeping society safe.

In most countries, the evidence is clear that they are not. In the US, two in three (68%) of people released from prison are rearrested within three years of release. In England and Wales, two in three (66%) of young people and nearly half of adults leaving prison will commit another crime within a year.

However, a handful of countries are bucking this trend. In Norway, only one in five (20%) of adults leaving prison are reconvicted within two years of release. Similar reoffending rates are seen across the Scandinavian nations. In Uruguay’s National Rehabilitation Centre, the recidivism rate is just 12%; in Germany, it’s 33% within three years.

What’s causing the difference in reoffending?

The common thread is that the most effective prisons are the ones that look least like prisons.

In most countries, including the US and UK, prisons prioritise punishment: they limit access to families, education and employment. Prisoners can be locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. Overcrowding, drugs, gangs and riots are common, and amenities like food and access to healthcare are basic.

But reoffending rates are lowest in prison facilities that minimise the focus on punishment: those that try to mirror life in the outside world.

In these facilities, prisoners can wear their own clothes, live in their own rooms with private showers, cook their own meals, access paid work and receive conjugal visits. Some have internet access throughout.

These prisons prioritise relationships and decency: they focus on rehabilitating prisoners through therapeutic interventions, employment and education. They are a far cry from being centres of punishment.

Some cities have already started applying this logic to other public institutions designed to tackle crime, veering away from a punishment and prison-based approach.

Glasgow, for example, was branded the European murder capital by the World Health Organisation in 2005. Over the past decade, knife crime has plummeted.

The shift is not due to an increase in punishment but rather, a major change in the role of the Scottish police force. Over the past decade, they have introduced a public health approach, working collaboratively with health, education and social services.

Before arresting and prosecuting violent perpetrators, they ask what caused the act of violence, how they can reduce the associated risks, and what best practice approaches would prevent future offences.

In Eugene, Oregon’s third-largest city, medics and crisis workers are the typical first responders to emergency calls – not the police. This approach is tailored, more effective and cheaper, providing city residents with both financial and social benefits.

An extension of this approach could see a gradual replacement of the entire traditional police service with an emergency response team, with specialised response units for mental health, neighbourhood disputes, domestic violence, drug crime, and serious violence.

Localised, person-centred services would tackle the root causes of offending with the real solutions, sustainably reducing crime and improving safety for everyone.

Another popular approach for delivering accountability outside the traditional criminal justice system is restorative justice. In this process, which originated in indigenous communities, the victim chooses to meet with the individuals or representatives who caused them harm.

In a facilitated face-to-face conference, they agree a resolution, repair the harm caused and find a way forwards – for example, a heartfelt apology, commitment to receive professional treatment, community service or a donation. Restorative justice ensures perpetrators of crimes take responsibility for the harm that they have caused and that victims of crimes are empowered to be a part of the process.

A 2001 UK government-funded study found that in a randomised control trial, restorative justice reduced the frequency of reoffending by 14% and the majority of victims were satisfied with the process.

A separate study showed that diverting young people who committed crimes from community orders to a pre-court restorative justice process would produce lifetime cost savings of £7,000 per person, and save society £1 billion over a decade.

 

How do we move to a new paradigm for delivering punishment?

Rethinking our traditional punitive approaches to reducing crime through public health diversions, restorative justice or other means could provide us with major wins in increasing public safety, reducing crime and cutting costs.

While it will require comprehensive cross-departmental engagement to achieve systems change, much of the work has already been done. Academic research, non-profit evaluations and city trials reveal clear best practice that can be implemented and scaled globally.

Technological advances could help us make some of these changes more efficiently. Bringing 21st Century digital tools into the public sector would enable often siloed government departments to communicate, share data and recognise patterns through artificial intelligence.

Database integration would enable a joined-up social services system, and a coordinated emergency response team. Developments in public health technology can enable individuals to better manage their physical, mental health and social care needs.

Technology is not, however, a panacea and these innovations could have unintended consequences.

There have been attempts to replace human criminal justice decision-making with algorithms, for example with judicial sentencing or police dispatching. While this has clear efficiency and cost benefits, trials have seen the algorithms incorporating and exacerbating pre-existing racial biases and prejudice.

Some countries have tried to reduce prisoner numbers by using electronic tagging, monitoring and restricting offenders’ geographic and temporal movements. Critics have called it a false structural change: rather than tackle the root causes of offending to sustainably reduce reoffending, tagging just replaces one prison with another, keeping people locked in their homes and local communities.

As to tech solutions within prisons, they miss the point. Improving a failing system is not the answer, when the institution itself is fundamentally flawed. There’s only so much we can do to reform prison, when the evidence points to the best solution being an entirely different system.

Globalization 4.0 is a call for us to reimagine what our public institutions should look like. With surges in violence and new threats like cybersecurity and terrorism, alongside pressing needs to cut government expenditure, we have a lot more to lose if we don’t act soon.

As a society that created the internet and has sent a spacecraft to Mars, we are more than capable of implementing a better solution to reduce crime than a failing 200-year-old Victorian prison model.

Our prisons and the way we approach punishment should be at the top of the list for an overhaul. By updating our global approach to tackling crime, we have a unique opportunity to make our world a safer and a better place for all of us.

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