The number of men in prison should be radically reduced says a British Academy team backed by former Lord Chief Justice writes Glen Poole.
The number of male prisoners in the UK has nearly doubled in 20 years, but the majority should not be in prison according to a new report from experts at the British Academy.
The report argues that the majority of men in prison “face challenges or disadvantages of one form or another or have suffered a troubled upbringing” and should be transferred from prison into treatment and rehabilitation facilities, or given non-custodial sentences .
In particular, men with mental disorders, learning difficulties or suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, should not be in prison, say the report’s authors who are backed by Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice for England and Wales.
What the report doesn’t address is that while the concept of removing female offenders with “particular vulnerabilities” from the prison system has become a mainstream idea, our sexist assumptions that “real men aren’t vulnerable”, leaves us collectively incapable of viewing male prisoners as being vulnerable and needing an alternative to imprisonment.
The vulnerability of male prisoners
According to the British Academy report, the particular vulnerabilities that male prisoners experience include the following:
- 68% of prisoners were not in paid employment prior to being imprisoned
- 59% of young offenders have learning difficulties or borderline learning difficulties
- 55% of prisoners commit crimes connected to their drug taking
- 47% of prisoners have no educational qualifications
- 41% of male prisoners were permanently excluded from school
- 27% of men in prison are victims of child abuse
- 24% of men in prison were removed from their families and spent time in care
- 21% are from an ethnic minority (compared to 10% of the general population)
- 18% of men in prison have a physical disability
- 15% of male prisoners were homeless prior to being imprisoned
- 12% of imprisoned men are black (compared with 3% of the general population)
From a moral perspective, the report’s authors say that the way we treat men who commit crimes should reflect the fundamental values of our society. They argue that the number of men imprisoned is excessive and fosters and institutionalizes social fragmentation along the lines of age, race, disability and of course gender.
Lack of opportunities for men
Criminal behaviour, they claim, is not simply the result of “faulty reasoning on the part of offenders” but a social problem shaped by the “educational, employment and social opportunities that society affords” men. For men who are economically excluded, they argue, “there is humiliation and disrespect, along with the sense of alienation which comes with relative deprivation in a world that prizes material success and purports to offer equal opportunity”. These men’s “identities are fragile rather than fixed or grounded [and] solutions to these conditions are found in…hyper-masculinity…and crime,” says the report.
With the cost of imprisoning men in England & Wales rising from around £1.5 billion to £3 billion in the past 20 years, the team of academics argue that the case for reducing the male prison population could reduce the financial cost to the public purse. They also stress that the state has a responsibility to keep the public safe, but claim that the majority of men do not pose a serious threat to society.
“In some cases sending a person to prison will be the most appropriate response to, and punishment for, the crimes that they have committed,” says the report. “But…this is not true in the majority of cases…… we should presume that in the majority of cases a custodial sentence will not be appropriate”.
Most male prisoners have mental disorders
The report’s authors are particularly concerned that mentally disordered offenders should be removed from prison through investment and transfer to more appropriate facilities, treatment and rehabilitation. According to the Prison Reform Trust, 72% of men in prison suffer from two or more mental disorders.
One of the biggest barriers to introducing the reforms proposed in the report is the fact the vast majority of prisoners are men. According to The Guardian columnist, Ally Fogg:
“Since the Corston report of 2007, there has been a persistent focus on reform of women’s sentencing from charities, campaigners and politicians of all parties. This gives a strong message that female offenders are special, to be pitied and understood. Male prisoners, by implication, are creators of their own ill-fortune.”
As the academics behind the British Academy report observe, it is all too tempting to subject offenders to look term stigma and exclusion. This is particularly the case when the offender is a man.
There is much to recommend this report. If it only focused on female prisoners, I’d be confident that its ideas and analysis would be broadly welcomed and put into practice. However, because of the sexist nature of our beliefs and our greater collective tolerance of the harm that happens to men and boys, it seems unlikely that we’ll be seeing the male prison population significantly reduced anytime soon.
To read the full report see: A Presumption Against Imprisonment: Social Order and Social Values
Tell us what you think. Is sexism at play in the treatment of male offenders and prisoners? Are we more open to acknowledging the vulnerabilities of female offenders when compared to male offenders? Should we be doing more to take male prisoners with specific challenges and disadvantages out of the prison system? Leave a comment below and join the conversation.
—Photo Credit: flickr/msakr
Written by Glen Poole author of the book Equality For Men