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How Prisons Became Just An Extension of Britain's Welfare State


How Prisons Became Just An Extension of Britain's Welfare State

May 1, 2008
Urban PolicyCrimeOther

AT A time of steeply rising prices and general economic anxiety, it was good politics for Gordon Brown to veto an increase of 37.5 per cent in the pay of prisoners for their work.

Such an increase would surely have been deeply unpopular.

Don’t prisoners cost enough already without being rewarded with the kind of pay rise the rest of us can only dream of?

Perhaps it will surprise and even outrage some people that prisoners are paid anything at all. However, inmates require an incentive to behave well and to earn privileges. When you are incarcerated, small things such as chocolate bars mean a great deal. You cannot run a prison, at least in a civilised country, by repression alone.

But just how civilised is our country? We have heard a lot about the cushiness of our prisons and that some of them are so comfortable that people are more likely to try to break into them than out of them.

Still, most of our prisons are not so comfortable that the majority of us would volunteer for a spell in them; far from it.


What is really alarming is the percentage of prisoners who prefer life in even the worst of our prisons to life outside in what is sometimes called, with unintentional or unconscious irony, the community.

I first realised this while working as a doctor in a prison when a strange paradox became apparent to me. There were a lot of burglars in prison yet outside, though I met people whose houses had been burgled, I never met anyone whose burglary had ended in the conviction of the robber.

GENERALLY speaking it was difficult for a householder to get the police interested in the burglary at all, beyond the allocation of a crime number. So I began to wonder whether burglars in prison had actually wanted to be caught – the only way police would ever catch them.

I asked in confidence whether this was so and discovered that roughly a third of prisoners actually preferred life in prison to life outside.

“There’s nothing out there for me, ” they would say.

They never admitted this to each other because they had to keep up the bravado and pretend they were antagonistic to the authorities and the prison officers. But often, when they returned to prison, they greeted the officers as old friends – which they were.

What exactly did they like about prison, at least by comparison with life outside? It was not the comfort, for such prisoners were as numerous even before conditions improved – though it is surely alarming that many prisoners sent out to hospital soon beg to be returned from the NHS to prison. And in my experience psychiatric patients are often better looked after by the prison service than by the psychiatric services.

The majority of prisoners live chaotic lives outside. Freedom is their enemy because they do not know what to do with it.

They often say of prison that they feel safe in it – safe more from themselves and the consequences of their own bad decisions than from external enemies. They are their own worst enemies and know it.

Prison gives them far fewer opportunities to misbehave, at least when the officers are in control. (No prison is more brutal than one run by the inmates, for then the most ruthless psychopaths rule. ) Prison gives them the boundaries they cannot give themselves: it keeps them on the straight and narrow. I have often been surprised by the meek compliance of people in prison who are completely uncontrolled outside. They like to know the limits; they want a world that is secure and predictable – and prison is the only place they find it.

They like also to be free of their chaotic relations with women, who are inclined to want things of them that they cannot give because they are so undisciplined and impulsive.

In prison they can abandon unwanted responsibility for their children with a good conscience because they have no choice. They actually feel more free in prison than outside.

This is sad, even pathetic.

The question arises of why we have so many people like this.

Whatever happened to independent, freeborn Britons?

Most of our prisoners have grown up in what the Americans now call “random families”: that is to say, households in which adult males come and go, usually unloved because of their violence and irresponsibility.

THE prisoners come from the kind of homes in which a meal round a table with the other members of the household is unknown (at least a third of British homes no longer even have such a table, and more than a third of British children never eat their meals with others).

They come from the kind of household in which children, if you ask them who their father is, answer, “Do you mean my father at the moment?” or just shake their heads uncomprehendingly.

This is the world that our welfare state has created and is now maintaining at such great expense, both in money and in misery. Even now it refuses to acknowledge that the way the prisoners (and so many others) have been brought up, and which it has encouraged with its system of social security payments, is disastrous.

The result is that, for large numbers of people in Britain, life inside prison is better than life outside and would be so even if prison were less comfortable than it is. That is the real scandal.