Reforming prisons, reforming prisoners

The prison population

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The end of the 19th century marked the transition towards a modern penal policy as the Victorian prison system was reformed.

Prisons were to be viewed not just as establishments for punishment but were to consider prisoners’ needs and the benefits of rehabilitation.

The recognition that young offenders should be treated separately from adults led to one such reform. The Prevention of Crime Act 1908 introduced separate establishments for offenders aged under 21, which became known as borstals. After WWII further reform was delivered through the Criminal Justice Act 1948 which abolished penal servitude, hard labour and flogging.

The reform of prisons has coincided with a growth in their use, at least since WWII. The prison population in 1908 was over 22,000, a record level that would not be exceeded until 1952. After that, the number of inmates rose steadily to 49,000 by 1988. Following a marginal reduction in the early 1990s, the number of prisoners has almost doubled since 1993, and now stands at nearly 90,000. The current prisoner rate, of 155 prisoners for every 100,000 people, is seven times higher than it was in 1940.

The dramatic rise in prisoner numbers from the early 1990s has occurred despite there being no significant increase in the numbers being convicted in court. Changes in 1993 to allow courts to take into account previous convictions when sentencing offenders; automatic life sentences for some sexual and violent offences; and an increasing use of short custodial sentencing for ‘anti-social’ crimes, all help to explain this trend. Politically, it has proved difficult for governments to take action to reduce the number of inmates, even at times of severe pressure on prison capacity, as the controversy over End of Custody Licences (an early release scheme that ran from 2007-10) showed.

In 1908 around 13% of prisoners were women mainly serving sentences either linked to prostitution or the suffragette movement. Many of the female prisoners were housed in Holloway prison which had become a female only prison in 1903. The proportion of the prison population that are women rose steadily from the low of 2.5% in the late 1960s to a peak of 6.1% in 2002, the highest proportion since the late 1940s. In each year since 2002 the proportion of the prison population that are women has fallen, and it currently stands at 5%.

Tougher on crime
The chart shows the proportion of women in prison and the total prison population since 1900.

The chart shows the proportion of women in prison and the total prison population since 1900

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