"I Read the Other Day," Said Martin Narey, "That Finland Has Three Children in Prison; That's Three. We Have 2,900." the Prison Service Chief Thinks Our Incarceration Rate Is "Scary"

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It might seem strange to think of the man who has run the prison service over the past six years as a victim. Martin Narey is worried about the inexorable rise in the number of people locked up, but insists he has little power to change it.

This is a story about statistics and about false economies. Some 85 of our prisons are officially described as overcrowded. Prisoner numbers are now above 75,000. That is a rise of 20 per cent under this Labour government. The Home Office predicts that the overall number could rise to 110,000 by 2010. No other European country comes close. The Americans are market leaders, but as ever we are following dutifully behind.

I put these points to Narey and he is keen to agree. He provides more data to back up the argument: "We lock up twice as many black men in England and Wales as there are in university." Ten years ago, there were 129 people sent to jail for shoplifting. Today, we have 1,400. If you are a shoplifter, your chances of being sent to custody by a magistrates' court is seven times greater today than it was then. In 2001, some 3,000 people were sent to prison for petty theft as a first-time offence. "I'm talking about things like theft of a bicycle; 3,000 people who had never offended before."


He turns to juveniles. "We're a much bigger country than Finland, but I read the other day that Finland has three children in prison, that's three; we have 2,900." We talk about our propensity to lock up women. Cherie Blair spoke at a recent conference of the Prison Reform Trust about the "tragedy of wasted lives", of so many mothers being separated from their children, often for comparatively minor offences. In 1994, the average number of women in prison in the UK was roughly 1,800. At the latest count, it was more than 4,500. Narey agrees with Cherie Blair, adding that 40 per cent of women going into prison have previously tried suicide. "The big issue is whether they should be there at all."

On every count, we are setting new records--with children, women, lifers, long-termers, short-termers. "I don't bring anyone to prison, I don't go and stand on street corners and advertise, but we have to deal with whatever is sent to us, despite the fact that [the prisons are] sometimes overwhelmed," Narey tells me.

Spending a day with Narey--it happened to be the day when Maxine Carr was freed from jail into perpetual fear of the lynch mob--I was struck by the prison chief's candour about the crisis. He sprays words such as "horrifying", "scary" and "terrible" when discussing the nature of a society that incarcerates so many of its citizens. So who is responsible for this sorry state of affairs? "I think judges and magistrates get a hard time from the media. They are frequently castigated for using community penalties for offences or for using shorter prison sentences," he says. "There's almost an Anglo-Saxon thing about liking custody."

Judges, fearing being labelled as soft, have handed down more and longer prison sentences. Even David Blunkett, who has instructed courts to keep serious criminals in jail for longer, has latterly urged them to show greater discretion to lesser offenders and to make greater use of early-release tagging schemes. The economic damage rivals the social damage. With each prisoner costing [pounds sterling]38,000 on average per year, Gordon Brown has told the Home Office that money is available for 80,000 places but no more.

Narey pins his remaining hopes on reducing reoffending rates. Here, too, the figures are dreadful. About 59 per cent of prisoners overall get into trouble within two years of their release. The recidivism rate among women is growing fastest--now up to 55 per cent. …