England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Inside Britain’s prison crisis

By Connor Rosoman, Socialist Alternative London

Rising prison numbers and deteriorating conditions are just two aspects of the wider social crisis engulfing Britain. The UK’s prison population is set to surpass 100,000 by September 2025, according to the Ministry of Justice. But already, two in three prisons are providing inadequate services, and they are running out of empty cells. In March the government was forced to adopt an early release scheme for those on short sentences, in order to free up cell space.

A self-inflicted crisis

The situation in UK prisons has worsened massively in the last decade – particularly following waves of closures of public prisons under Tory austerity. The system has since been gradually handed to private companies like Serco, G4S and Sodexo, to run them for a profit. These three companies now run facilities holding more than 18% of the total prison population.

Private prisons consistently mean a decline in conditions. All three of these corporations have been connected to the violations of rights of prisoners, including illegal strip searches at HMP Peterborough (Sodexo), hyper-restrictive conditions at HMP Thameside (Serco) during which 60% of prisoners were locked in their cells for 23 hours per day, and even the 2016 death of a woman due to neglect at HMP Bronzefield (Sodexo, again).

With one hand, capitalism has driven down our living standards, plunged people into a mental health epidemic, and generated a deep social crisis. With the other, it criminalises the symptoms of this crisis by outlawing rough sleeping and begging, and delivering harsh sentences for petty crime such as shoplifting – which has seen a spike in recent years. Overzealous sentences and high numbers kept on remand mean that poor people and those from minority backgrounds (who make up 27% of the prison population) are disproportionately under the boot of the British state.

Meanwhile, the real criminals at the top continue to go unpunished. Slum landlords force people to live in unsafe conditions, sexual abuse runs rife among the rich and powerful, billionaires continue to avoid their taxes – with only token instances of ‘justice’ handed out to maintain the state’s mask of neutrality.

What is the solution?

Immediate steps could be taken to improve this situation. This could include ending all prison sentences for crimes of poverty, and the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use. All those still being detained on long-abolished IPP sentences (“Imprisonment for Public Protection”) should be released, and a trade union struggle is needed to reverse the privatisation of prison education and probation services. Such measures, as well as urgent investment in mental health and social care, a genuine living wage and a programme of public investment into high-quality green jobs could begin to tackle Britain’s social catastrophe.

Repressive state institutions like prisons (whether in public or private hands) exist to keep working-class people in line and maintain the rule of a tiny gang of capitalists. Capitalism creates for itself a ‘need’ for this repressive apparatus by constantly reproducing poverty and political instability. In that sense, simple reform is not enough.

We need a complete transformation of society along socialist lines, in which poverty and the social problems it generates are eliminated, and where society is run democratically by and for the vast majority. Only on that basis can we finally build a society where repressive state institutions can be done away with forever 

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