Cutting the costs of crime: For a more equitable prison system

Tal Tyagi

H.M Prison Wandsworth | Photograph: Patrick Copley

Violent crime costs the UK over £124 billion a year, £4,700 for every household. The biggest assault on the public purse is prison expenditure. The annual cost of a prison place in England and Wales marks around £37,648. This surpasses the fees of even the most prestigous private schools. Yet our ‘naughty children’ are still not making the grade! 47% of adults and 73% of those under 18 are reconvicted within a year of release. The cost of re-offending leaves us with a bill of £9.5 to £13 billion a year. Tal Tyagi explores how prisons can design crime out of their walls and create incentives that reduce re-offending.

Norway’s prison system is branded as “luxurious.” Cells are kitted with televisions, computers, integral showers and sanitation. Aside from the loss of liberty, one wonders what the actual punishment is. Amazingly Norway has one of the lowest rates of re-offending in the world. Conversely, the US which because of its enormous prison population, is the only country where more men are raped than women, regularly practices solitary confinement (a form of torture) and serves food which is well below the grade. Interestingly the US has one of the highest rates of re-offending in the world.

Even when the public are shown the pros and cons of these two models, they ovewhelmingly prefer the US model. The idea that prison should administer some level of retribution on behalf of the victims is understandable and probably unchangeable. This appetite for punishment must be taken into account.

Just as special interests can impede post-colonial progress, they also impede changing the prison system. Increasingly prisons are being sold-off in ‘auctions’ where companies ‘bid’ for contracts.

Serco, an outsourcing company, soon to be the largest operator of private prisons in the UK has found there is a lot of dime to be made in crime. There is a fundamental contradiction between the interests of the company which spends as little as possible on the maintenance of the prison (to maximise profit) and the needs of inmates who if they are to be reformed, need as much help (and ultimately funding) as possible.

This contradiction is exemplified by how in the drive to keep costs down, Serco increased capacity in one prison by putting beds in the toilets! The need to vet and hire the most competent and caring staff has also taken a blow. In another prison a fourteen-year-old hanged himself after being assaulted by Serco guards; the UK’s youngest ever death in custody.

Across the globe companies have been viewing prisons in much the same way as they view under-developed countries – as pools of labour. In the 80s IKEA did a deal with the East German government to use political prisoners to help manufacture products. This practice has given rise to a ‘prison-industrial’ complex in the US. Special interests have benefitted from expanding the prison population and have lobbied politicians to be ‘tough on crime.’

In some cases juveniles have gone to prison for offences as minimal as mocking a principal on Myspace, trespassing in a vacant building and shop-lifting a DVD from Walmart. Such a perversion of justice is part of the reason why the land of the free contains 25% of the world’s prison population! Under such a system public money perpetuates a failed system purely for companies to grow fat on subsidised slavery.

The Solution

The system should remain fully state-owned and answerable to the elected government. According to public will, prison should remain an option for the most serious crimes. However, the system must be cost-effective so the revolving door of repeat re-offending needs to be closed. In the UK prisoners are released with £47 and a criminal record. One can see the appeal of a return to crime.

The solution lies in prisoners earning and building up skills and savings to help them find their feet upon release. This can be achieved through engagement with the private sector. Whatever deal is brokered must be mutually beneficial. In return for access, the company must be able to prove that it can provide adequate training and a wage.

Prisoners on the living wage!?

Such an initiative would not be supported by the public who themselves struggle to find well-paid work. Having a living wage in prisons would also destroy the incentive for investment. Most companies would view the non-criminal population as a more reliable source of labour and for them to set-up shop, wages would have to be considerably lower than outside. Prisoners’ living costs are taken care of anyway. Wages would purely be for savings and would accumulate throughout their stay.

This focus on earning for the future could allow for vast variation in salaries. The longer your stay, the lower your salary. Those in for twenty years + could be on twenty pence an hour, those in for ten years + could be on fifty pence an hour and those in for six months could be given £1 an hour. The logic of this is that those in for shorter sentences need cash in the more immediate future than their long-term counterparts. There is also a punitive dimension. Those on the longest sentences have committed the worst crimes so get paid the least.

When entering into a partnership, companies must be able to demonstrate a commitment to business ethics in return for access to the cheap labour. Another potential trap is moving jobs out of the main economy. Contracts should only be awarded to companies who are already providing jobs in the main economy with a guarantee that those jobs are not in jeapoardy.

A selection of spaces within the companies on the outside on living wages (after release) should be on offer to those inmates who have made the most effort to change their ways and who have worked the hardest. Competition to be put forward should encourage a race towards rehabilitation. Prisoners will be incentivised to out-compete one another on who can behave the best. Potentially this could foster a culture of aspiration to counter the pervasive influence of gangs and drugs.

Administering justice for victims and ending the assault on the public purse, the new system would provide a window of opportunity for criminals to become citizens once again. By reducing re-offending, the annual criminal justice brudget can be shrunk and more money can be made available for schools, hospitals and overseas aid.

Copyright © 2016 Tal Tyagi. All Rights Reserved.
About Tal Tyagi 6 Articles

Aiming to be principled but pragmatic and creative yet critical, Tal Tyagi is a writer, marketing executive and Politics student at the University of Warwick. He regularly contributes to several publications with a particular focus on international development, security and criminal justice. With experience working in campaigning, in the heart of government education policy and the charity sector, he has ´insider´ political knowledge.