Oona Prieur looks into the issues inside European prisons and makes the case for a more humane prison system.

In a democracy, punishing those who break the rules is only fair. In European countries, prison systems aim to penalise and educate citizens who committed a crime. However, they seem to have the opposite effect: violence rates in prisons keep increasing and former prisoners have a difficult time reintegrating society. The prevalence of recidivism illustrates the system failure very clearly.

So, what’s wrong with our current prison systems and what can we do about it?

What is wrong with the prison system?

A prison sentence in a democratic society represents the removal of all kinds of freedom: being enclosed from sunrise to sunset is the strongest punishment — at least in the EU. But should we only consider prison as a sanction or should it also be an educative system for  (former) criminals? The latter is what French laws states. Yet, recidivism happens in more than forty percent of the cases. Prisons in Europe are under much pressure, suffering from numerous “diseases”.

  • Overcrowded prisons

European prisons are very often overcrowded, theatres of violence and abuse. This does not only violate human rights, it is counter-productive. For instance, in the United Kingdom and in France, the occupancy levels in prison are respectively 110.8% and 118.4% of official prison capacity. Alarming numbers that prove a point: prisoners are piled up into rooms with neither privacy nor space. This is not the case in all European countries: Dutch prisons are basically empty and Sweden’s prison population is falling. But the opposite is the prevalent case and poses a serious problem. Overcrowding is one of the main complaints of prisoners and poses a real issue engendering all kinds of violence.

  • Violence

In English and Welsh prisons violence rates have never been so high. In 2017, 3606 serious assaults were committed, as opposed to 1448 ten years before then. An increase of 150%, highlighting the pressure under which prisoners are.  

  • Self-harm

Suicide rates in prisons keep increasing, in a sad illustration of prisoners’ mental health. In 2016, 107 prisoners committed suicide, only in England and Wales. Numbers that speak for themselves. As democratic nations, we need to ask ourselves whether prisons should support a healthy and well-balanced development for their citizens or further people’s distress, with the only excuse of doing so as punishment?

  • Decreasing staff

Due in major part to cost-cutting programmes, prison staff have severely decreased. Moreover, access to health care is becoming more and more precarious for prisoners. These shortages are creating a more than hostile atmosphere; not even considering dirty cells, drugs consumption and numerous other deteriorating factors.

Today’s prison systems generate more prisoners. The more fragile the prisoner, the more likely he or she is going to be influenced into committing crime again: the multiple factors weakening the prison system thus participates in recidivism rates. In a few words, it is understandable that the current prison system has entered a vicious circle.

What solutions during incarceration time?

A central issue in the prison debate is the external perception of prisons. They might be considered too luxurious for people who do not know their reality, or they might be perceived as fair punishment. However, prisons as they are today are neither luxurious nor fair punishment, considering that they are not even efficient. Acknowledging the reality of the situation, it seems essential to elaborate some solutions that could, step by step, improve the system and make it what it really is supposed to be: punishing with teaching, a constructive sanction.

  • Clean space

A lot a French prisons face a huge rat problem. It may seem superficial, yet it is one of many examples of the terrible living standards. As kids, you may have heard your parents telling you that a clean bedroom is a clean mind. How can one expect prisoners to care for themselves, focus on self-development and envisage the future in such living conditions? Rats are only one example, and mostly the consequence, of bad maintenance. From cell walls being dark of dust and waste being piled-up in cells with no bins, prisoners are enclosed in a filthy space — which, to top it all, is already overcrowded.

If prisons do aim at teaching and reinserting prisoners into society, they should at least be clean and respect basic human needs. Enabling prisoners to have a clean personal space can easily be done: crucially, enabling prisoners to clean their cell themselves would also participate giving them more agency, and thus responsibility.

  • Work and responsibilities

In France, in 2016, the rate of prisoners with a job represented less than a third of prisoners compared to nearly half of them in 2000. Work is the best way to avoid recidivism after going out of prison, as it reduces the chances of it to happen nearly by half. However, the rates of prisoners with a job are still decreasing, and with them the ‘quality’ of the position. In France, prisoners do not have a contract when they work which delegitimises any action taken during imprisonment. Working in prisons should be mandatory for everyone, paid fairly and coming with training programmes to reinsert in society adequately. Work should not only be punishment but also taken as an opportunity to transmit values and teach prisoners how to become active citizens —therefore offering them as many opportunities as possible.

  • Sports, free space and activities

Working-out, going on walks, doing activities etc. prevent boredom, favours health and allows for a way to work out certain issues. In that way, activities can prevent regroupments of prisoners feeling rejected by society that sometimes lead to radicalisation of any kind. What can prevent religious radicalisation is freedom of practicing religion, and in particular the availability of prison chaplains. Indeed, if it is forbidden, it is practiced in secret and can develop into a shield against society, creating an environment prone for radicalisation. Prisoners need to spend energy, communicate healthily with others and have free space to think or meditate. 

If prisons favour recidivism, the system is failing.

This issue is indeed very complex and multidimensional, also comprising the question of adequate sanctions, sentence lengths and incarceration at all. The above are suggestions to improve conditions for prisoners during their incarceration time in a way that would benefit them but also society as a whole. Through bad maintenance, disrespect for human rights and overcrowding, prisons are the first spaces that create more violence, more crimes and recidivism. If prisons actually favour recidivism, the system is failing.

Today, some criminals are not imprisoned for lack of space, creating a more insecure society and dissatisfied citizens who pay taxes for prisons that are nonetheless ineffective. This vicious circle can only be broken by reforming the structure of prisons itself. Criminals do need to be punished, but adequately, and most importantly with respect for the same human rights that our democracies defend so strongly. Prisons need to be a place favouring a safe reinsertion into society, for prisoners and for others. Only a humane prison system can create a safe society.


Cover Photo: Ye Jinghan (Unsplash); License free

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    Oona is a French student currently stationed in the United Kingdom. She is studying International Relations and Middle-Eastern Studies and looking forward to specialise in a Masters programme in Security Studies.

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