On Radio 4's P.M. programme last night a representative of the Prison Warder's Association (forgive me if I have the title wrong but research and blogging don't seem to fit together easily) said something close to this:
Nobody has been able to tell me what the desirable number of people is to have in prison at any one time...
This passed without comment by the interviewer, Carolyn Quinn.
Now clearly one answer to the question, and a very good answer at that, is 'None'. That would be to avoid the point. Understanding human nature as we do it is pretty much inevitable that some people will do things that require imprisonment from time to time. But the 'desirable number?' Could we ever say?
Is it like the examination system that used to exist (does it still?) in accountancy, that only a certain percentage obtain the qualification each time and so the passmark is set at the number of entrants desired that year? Surely not. We can't decide we need 20,000 people banged up at any one time and so imprison litter-droppers in a lean year but pardon rapists in a bad one.
So there can't be be a sort of averaging out. And thus if standards of behaviour drop then more and more people go to prison. Which is the problem we have at the moment. Prisons are full because people are doing more and more imprisonable things. The persistent shop-lifters, fine-avoiders and public nuisances, aware as they are that courts will try anything short of imprisonment, have 'pushed it'. And ends of tethers have been reached and some of those folks are now locked up. It looks, to the untrained eye, as if they are locked up for petty offences but how many petty offences can you commit before it becomes serious? Stealing £500 off someone is bad. Is stealing a packet of cigarettes every three days (the same pecuniary value after a year) equally bad?
There is a good debate going on and it would be much enhanced if someone had the guts to say 'It is not immediately obvious what society should want to do?'
We can't rehabilitate everyone quickly. We can't build a new prison in less than ten years (apparently). We shouldn't lower our standards. We shouldn't bring back the stocks, beatings or the death penalty.