by Cristina Odone WHILE the dispute between the Home Office and the Prison Officers continues unabated, the Church of England's General Synod Board for Social Responsibility has issued a strongly worded statement today criticising the present prison system in this country, and urging a number of wideranging reforms.
There is "little evidence that prison deters" states Wanted: A New Policy for Prisons. Overcrowded cells, growing number of remand prisoners awaiting trials or sentences, and in particular overly harsh sentences emerge as endemic to today's prison system, says the Board. Echoing the study published last month by the British Council of Churches' Pena) Policy Group, it suggests that such problems can only be eradicated through total reform of the conditions and sentencing practices which make up our penal policy.
England's soaring prison population (48,000 in 1985) stands as third highest, per capita, in the whole of western Europe: only Turkey and West Germany have more citizens behind bars. Most of those imprisoned, moreover, are not sent to jail for violence, sex or drug offences, but for theft, fraud, criminal damage or motoring offences.
Over one third of all prisoners are sleeping two or three to a cell, usually without access to integral sanitary facilities. Cells are cramped, and prison staff disheartened — "it is demeaning and distateful" states Wanted "for staff to work in prisons as stretched and overcrowded as many now are."
At the root of the problem is the "confusion and pessimism" which society feels about the traditional objectives for imprisoning a law-breaker: should he be merely punished, or should he be reformed and rehabilitated as well? Is reform and rehabilitation possible in the present conditions? Should alternatives to the prison cell be found?
The Board points to alternative methods of punishment as the most viable solution to these problems, and faults the present courts with ignoring the options created in the past 20 years: options such as community work, suspended sentences and the use of noncustodial sentences have hardly been explored by judges.
Wanted also questions the wisdom of the Government's Commitment to the judiciary: though "there are understandable reasons for this (commitment) in constitutional theory," the Board argues that by promising to provide everescalating prison places, the Government is in effect offering "a blank cheque to the courts".
A number of "practical proposals” are presented in Wanted: available of more ball and after-care hostels and facilities for the care of drug and alcohol-related offenders; adjustment of courts' sentencing guidelines when prisons near capacity levels; or the queuing for prison places in the case of people sentenced for non-violent offences.
The Christian, emphasises the Board. "has to have moral concern for the manner in which people are imprisoned".