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Youth criminalised as Brown demands bigger prisons

As Britain continues to lock up more people per capita than any other Western European country, New Labour’s grandees are arguing amongst themselves about plans to build “super” jails.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw has poured cold water on the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for huge “Titan” prisons, which are supposed to hold 2,500 inmates each. He told the BBC that “we are not going to have large warehouses as they have in the United States and indeed France”. Ironically, it was Straw who announced plans for the super jails back in December. A building programme is supposed to provide another 9,600 places by 2012 at a cost of £1.2bn thereby bringing Britain’s prison population up to 96,000. It reached a record high last year of 81,000 - 143 people out of 100,000 in the population – and numbers are still growing.

But since Straw initially proposed the plan last December, there have been serious criticisms, notably by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers. This week she warned that the prisons system was at breaking point and the experience in France had shown that super jails did not work. “The prison population went from one all-time high to another, staving off disaster only by a series of short-term, often expensive, emergency measures,” she said. There had been 40% more self-inflicted deaths over the year.

Meanwhile another of New Labour’s measures to deal with young offenders came under serious criticism from within the criminal justice establishment. Ex Youth Justice Board Professor Rod Morgan has accused the government of criminalising young people for petty offences.

In a radio talk with Justice Minister Lord Hunt yesterday, he denounced the “widening criminal net”, which bringing more and more young people within the ambit of criminal law. Minor incidents, such as fighting in the school playground, which had previously been dealt with successfully within a school itself, were now being made into criminal offences.

Morgan said there had been “a huge increase in out-of-court hearings and pre-court summary justice” with little information about what it actually meant. He said that the strategy had received virtually no research, inspectoral or parliamentary scrutiny. Morgan resigned last year, criticising the jailing of young children, many of them for minor offences, is highly respected for his work on conditions in custody.

Not a man to mince his words he is notable for saying recently that there were "adverse consequences to fixing the mark of Cain to a child's forehead" and has denounced "misplaced hysteria over teenage crime". Recently he said: "Locking up more children is the equivalent for penal policy of building more coal fired power stations for global warming. The likely consequence in the long term is to create more adult career criminals."

As New Labour’s criminalisation of young people goes on apace, a Home Office advisor on gun crime has said that black youth were being left to die while funds to community groups were being cut.

Dr Derrick Campbell, chairman of the National Independent Advisory Group on Criminal Use of Firearms, which advises the Home Office and the security services said that community groups in the Birmingham area and elsewhere in the country had found their funding cut. He was speaking earlier this week after the violent deaths of three young men in Birmingham, Wolverhampton and London.

But there is one comforting thought for those who advocate the free market – the drugs trade in British prisons is currently estimated to be worth £100 million a year. So while youth are being taken off the streets, they will be prey to as much if not more drug pushing than before.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
27 August 2008

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