While the U.S. in recent years has begun to reduce its incarceration rate and adopt other reforms to make American criminal justice more humane, the U.K. seems to be drifting in the opposite direction, toward a more punitive model with many of the same downsides that the U.S. has tried, fitfully, to shed, Prospect Magazine reports. Journalist Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times and founding editor of The Marshall Project, catalogues what his article calls "the alarming Americanization of British prisons," with "many echoes of American dysfunction" that are growing louder in England and Wales prisons in particular: "overcrowded cell blocks, low staff morale, violence and self-harm, rampant drug use and mental illness, a severe shortage of rehabilitative activities and a parole system widely described as an abject failure in safely reintroducing prisoners to the free world." The U.K. locks up a larger percentage of its subjects than its neighbors in western Europe (though its per capita incarceration rate is only about a third of America’s), sentences are growing more draconian and, as in the U.S., skew disproportionately against Black people.
John Podmore, whose nearly 40 years of engagement with prisons include service as an inspector and governor, laments above all what he sees as a pervasive public indifference. “I’m more pessimistic now than I think I’ve ever been,” Podmore said. “The pendulum is swinging in the wrong direction.” One senior prison official, when asked how the system has evolved during his three decades of service, said, “‘Evolved’ implies improvement. The service has certainly changed, but not for the better.” The inspectorate of prisons' July 2022 nationwide overview portrays a system in distress, including dozens of aging, crumbling facilities. Even newer prisons tend to be overcrowded as well and are plagued by staff shortages. The U.K. trend even mirrors America's political origins for tough-on-crime policies. Since the turn of the millennium, when politicians such as Tony Blair recognized that tough-on-crime rhetoric can add ballast to a liberal agenda, party leaders across the board have competed to register their disdain for anything that smacks of leniency. The Criminal Justice Act from 2003, hailed by Blair as a “victim’s justice bill”, was a dramatic escalation of mandatory sentencing.