Walk the Line? 50 Years

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Christine Felix

In 1968 Johnny Cash gave two concerts in Folsom Prison USA, the first recording in a prison. Cash “paradoxically celebrated prison and outlaw life while creating a damning portrait of the prison experience that pricked the era’s concern for society’s outcasts.”  

Over here the Parole Board was set up; Lord Longford had chaired a committee which recommended a parole system. The prison population was around 30,000. Women as a proportion of the prison population fell to 2%, the lowest figure in the 20th century. Some prisoners were still sewing mail bags by hand. Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, was shocked by the practice of ‘slopping out’ but new build prisons were no different. The maximum security prison recommended by the Mountbatten Report after George Blake’s escape was ‘deferred.’ The memorable technology from 1968 is Hal the computer that went rogue in A Space Odyssey.

25 years ago, the prison population had decreased for four consecutive years in the early 1990s and in 1993 was 44,246. There were 48 self-inflicted deaths. ‘Slopping out’ persisted in a few prisons. New Bridge was running the trailblazing Family Matters course about parenting and relationships for men, women and young offenders in three prisons. Inside Time, the free newspaper for prisoners was firmly established and published quarterly. “Killing Time” a band from HMP Standford Hill played at the New Bridge concert. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, said “Prison works. It ensures that we are protected…..it makes many who are tempted to commit crime think twice…. This may mean that more people will go to prison.”     The World Wide Web was born at CERN.

For  2019 what is the picture?  The prison population in England & Wales increased by around 40,000 from 1993 to 84,373 in December 2017, then dropped by 3% to 82,236 in December 2018. Women make up 4% of people in prison. There were 92 self-inflicted deaths and 23% increase in reported self-harm. Women are  135% more likely to self-harm than men. The number of life sentence prisoners has increased by more than 40% since the turn of the century: the UK has more ‘lifers’ than France, Germany & Italy combined. [Around 90%?] of prisoners befriended by New Bridge are  serving indefinite sentences. Huge benefits of technology for prison security- biometrics, body worn video cameras, CCTV, scanners, signal jammers. But challenges too: drones which drop drugs and illicit contraband in prisons, and mobile phones the size of a thumbnail.

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