Counting the cost of imprisonment

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During an event to mark Penal Reform International’s 25th anniversary, Vicky Pryce, former Government senior economist and former prisoner shared her analysis of the costs of imprisonment. Her blend of experience t made for a compelling account. She argued that the amount of money the state spends on imprisonment is too much and could produce much better outcomes for offenders, their families and communities if it were used in other ways.

There are dangers in saying spend less on prison. Such a reductionist approach seems to be behind the recent announcements that savings of £2,200 per prisoner per year must be made in England and Wales. This crude calculation is inspired by the reported costs incurred by private company G4S in running Oakwood, the UK’s largest establishment with more than 1600 prisoners.

Not for the first time, the UK government has decided on criminal justice policy and operations that rely only on counting money. Not even value for money, simply that cheapest must be the best. There is no apparent reflection on the government’s own watchdog, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, whose recent report on Oakwood quoted a prisoner saying ‘you can get drugs here but not soap’.

There is no doubt that appropriate use of money, cost benefit analysis and cutting of waste are important components of good governance and sage fiscal policy. But simply to take the least amount as a suitable target is simply too simplistic and damaging for so many. Serious efforts to reduce the numbers behind bars and the lengths of sentences would produce much more in the way of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.

But perhaps Government policy is not just about the money; maybe there is social political philosophy that inspires such decisions, a fundamental approach where punishment is the Government’s priority outcome for those found to be in conflict with the law. In such an approach aims to reduce offending, promote safer and more prosperous societies are at best rhetoric. Or maybe it is a matter of hoping to convince some voters that government is tough on crime and offenders and not a penny will wasted on them.

A race downwards to the lowest cost and the lowest standards really does nothing to convince that a government is intent on anything other than taking decisions that are not only economically suspect and harmful, but also do damage to those who pass through prison, their families and the communities to which they return. How will the Treasury calculate that cost?