Edward Garnier, the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, recently expressed his view that imprisoning criminals “is hugely expensive and not working.” Hugely expensive is not the same as too expensive, but Mr Garnier reckons the £37,000 per prisoner per year is too much to pay. Unfortunately citing a statistic does not a cogent argument make. You cannot tell from a price tag whether something is good value. In the case of many criminals keeping them locked up is a bargain at a mere £37,000. And what does “not working” mean? The buggers are off the streets are they not? For Mr Garnier “not working” refers to the high rates of recidivism. However, I’m not aware of Mr Garnier outlining any alternative programme that would be cheaper with less recidivism.

I asked my wife this morning (when she’s particularly grumpy) what she thought should be done to punish the worst criminals. “Kill them,” was the answer. As extreme as that might sound to some ears it would certainly fix the recidivism problem, and how much does a bullet or lethal injection have to cost, eh? Some further benefits of “kill them” include a more effective deterrent, and permanent safety for society from the criminal in question (resurrection and reincarnation aside).

All of this raises the question: How should crime be punished? In our limp-wristed, weak-bellied, pussy-footing, lilly-livered, slack-jawed, croissant-crunching, guilt-ridden, hyper-compassionate, mawkish times there is a massive backlash against imprisonment. In a BBC discussion programme on the question (“What’s Wrong with Prisons?”) two of the four panellists seemed to seriously hint that the abolition of prisons was an ideal, both of them claiming that the abolitionist position was “most consistent.” Now, when pushed a little by the presenter, William Crawley, one of the muppets dissolved into a stuttering, stammering, sweating mess, as if the thought suddenly going through his head was “Oh shit, thousands of people are hearing this and think I’m an arsehole, how do I make it sound palatable.” But, statements exulting the consistency of the abolition position are rather odd. Firstly, “consistent” is a vague term. It implies a relationship, since things are more or less consistent with respect to something else. Things can be consistent with known facts, or with popular opinion, or some wider theory of ethics, or simply internally consistent. In the context of this debate the sense was that of internal consistency. But it hardly matters. Since when was consistency the sole criterion for judging intellectual and moral opinions? Hitler was consistent too – but that fact shouldn’t recommend to us the annihilation of millions of Jews. Anarchism is also rigorously consistent; so, abolish government? Theories can be utterly consistent and yet intellectually vacuous and morally bankrupt. Prison abolition being to my mind an obvious example.

During the programme the panellists seemed obsessed with the rights of prisoners – especially female prisoners who may have children (presumably male prisoners are childless). We had all the typical tired old clichés – prisons are universities of crime, prisons just make people worse by separating them from social support structures, many prisoners commit more crimes upon being released, and so on and so forth ad nauseum. Very little was said about anyone other than the criminal, and even then you got the impression that the vast majority of criminals are mentally ill and deserve our help and pity. Victims hardly got a mention, and the safety of the general public just didn’t seem to factor in their addled minds. Of paramount importance were the “rights” of the criminals. No one said it, but I reckon at least two of the panel counted imprisonment as an infringement of the rights of criminals. Unfortunately they never really got around to suggesting plausible alternatives beyond some vague allusions to some form of community service programmes. So, rather than a lengthy stay in prison a fitting punishment for crimes might just be to send Mr Rapist to mow the lawn at the local school, Mr Murderer to make tea for little old ladies, and Mr Grievous Bodily Harm to run charity collections in the neighbourhood, and at the end of the day they could chat with our hyper-compassionate do-gooders about their thoughts and feelings over freshly brewed coffee and bagels. Fucking Genius.

The major argument spewing forth from the wet-hand-wringing advocates of the increasingly cool and hip position that prisons are a bad thing is the high rate of recidivism. Prisons don’t work because many prisoners – 70% – re-offend within 2 years of being released, or so the argument goes. What an odd statement. Firstly, to point to these recidivism statistics simply won’t do to support the conclusion that prisons are bad. If 70% of people re-offend you need to establish that they re-offend because they were in prison or that they wouldn’t have offended again if they had never been put there. There isn’t one shred of evidence to even plausibly suggest that either of these could possibly be the case. To my mind the most natural explanation for recidivism is not that prisons aren’t working, but rather that sentences aren’t severe enough. If a burglar gets out after 5 years and then continues breaking into houses then perhaps we should think about keeping such people in prison for a bit longer.

In any event to complain that prisons don’t work because of the high recidivism rate is a bit like complaining that your vacuum cleaner is no good for washing the windows – it simply isn’t its job to do so. It’s not the reducing of re-offending that concerns prisons, but rather the reducing of offending in the first place – by acting as a deterrent to people committing crimes and by preventing the criminals from committing more crimes for the duration of their stay in prison. There are those who think a high recidivism rate shows that prison is not an effective deterrent. However, you cannot judge the deterrence rate by looking only at ex-prisoners. To do so is incredibly narrow. By virtue of the fact that prisoners have already committed crimes we know that the threat of prison is not a deterrent to them. The fact of the matter is that a punishment such as prison is almost certainly a deterrent to a sizable number of law-abiding people who on occasion might refrain from certain actions because of the threat of punishment. If you think the threat of punishment is of no deterring value ask yourself what kind of society would exist without it. Welcome to the jungle; a right royal Hobbesian nightmare. In fact, given the fact that a spell in prison often leads to further crime, the loss of money, property, jobs, and social standing, we can see that recidivism itself has a deterrent value insofar as people seeing the lives of others engrossed in crime are even less likely to commit a crime in the first place. Incidentally, a decade ago Britain’s prison population began to grow. During this time the number of crimes actually fell. In the early nineties we had 49,000 people in prison and 19 million recorded crimes. In 2005 we had 75,000 prisons and 11 million crimes. Prison doesn’t work? Sure about that?

Criminal punishment is an area in which libertarians will disagree with each other. I should note first of all that in a libertarian state there would be far fewer crimes, for two reasons. Firstly, many of the things which are currently punishable crimes would not be in a libertarian state – prostitution, television licence evasion, selling alcohol 24 hours a day, killing intruders that break in to your house, to name just a few. Secondly, a libertarian society would allow much more room for achievement and progress by the creation of wealth and employment and encouraging a culture of responsibility.

Anyhow libertarians will often disagree about the mechanics and justification for criminal punishment. However, to my mind the punishment of criminals – even severe punishments such as the death penalty – are justified on similar grounds as we might justify the use of deadly force by our armed forces against aggressors. Government exists to protect the rights – the right to life and property rights – of individual citizens from force. If a foreign nation attacks ones own country then we rightfully expect our government to fight back – using deadly force if necessary – to protect our lives and our property. The same holds true for internal aggressors. If an individual citizen breaches the rights of his fellow citizens then we properly expect our government to take necessary action against him, thus fulfilling its duty to protect the rights of its individual citizens from illegal force. There is no point waffling about the rights of criminals in such cases. The criminal knows the law. He knows that if he kills someone he will be punished under the law. So, in the act of killing a person he forfeits his own rights; his rights are not taken from him. In this way his actions are deliberate self-destruction and akin to an act of suicide. Imprisonment is an essential feature of any rational society that cares for individual rights and the need to protect its citizens from aggressors.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should leave people to rot in prison either. Nobody wants ex-prisoners to re-offend. There can be attempts to “rehabilitate” or educate or to put prisoners to good use. However, no-one has as yet devised a formula for rehabilitation, so we shouldn’t pretend that this is a realistic alternative to prison, or even a magic fix-all when done within the confines of prison walls. Unfortunately there is no magic wand that can be waved to turn hardened criminals into nice-guys-really. Many simply can’t and, more importantly, simply won’t go “straight.” Crime is an easy option for them, a way of life, and often a source of easy money often well worth risking a stretch in prison for. The better solution is to make sure that a life of crime is not worth risking prison for – by handing out longer sentences, by removing the endless opportunities for early release and by making life a little less comfortable for convicts when the prison gates clang shut behind them.

Perhaps education and work should become a focus. Abolitionists are fond of pointing out how many prisoners leave prison still unable to read and write. Here’s a solution – make their release from prison dependent on some form of educational or vocational achievement. And what about the cost of such things? Well, there’s really no reason why the prison population can’t be put to use in some sort of productive activity. God knows they have plenty of time at their disposal. Radio presenter James Whale famously suggested, not completely tongue-in-cheek, that prisons should all be fitted with exercise bikes which could be connected to the national electricity grid, and prisoners could then work shifts on the bikes providing electricity for large parts of the country. Dartmoor prison puts its inmates to work rebuilding stone walls in the surrounding area, saving local farmers a lot of time and effort. Alternatively, prisoners could do some jobs which we currently pay for through taxes – re-building roads, or tidying local parks. Perhaps another way to reduce the costs of prison is to clamp down on pool tables and wide-screen TVs, thus forcing prisoners to find more productive ways to use their mass of free time.

Prisons do the job they are supposed to do: punish, deter, and protect. That much is incontrovertible. They could certainly be made even better, perhaps if we focus more on improvement than abolition. In short: prisons work, and would work even better if the inmates did too.

Stephen Graham B.Th (Hons)