Britain’s prisons are becoming ever more like the failed US system

Just around the corner from where the Krays used to hold sway in east London’s Brick Lane there is an establishment called Alcotraz. Described as “London’s first immersive theatrical cocktail bar”, Alcotraz allows you to dress up in a prison uniform, get locked up in a cell, have a cocktail or two, and get your photo taken. So Britain is channelling – in the cause of entertainment – a famous prison in the United States. But look closely and you’ll see that we are also mirroring that country’s relentlessly unforgiving and counterproductive penal policy.

Earlier this year, the prime minister joked that Britain was now “probably the Saudi Arabia of penal policy, under our wonderful home secretary”. In October, the Prison Reform Trust published a report which showed that there had been a “dramatic” increase in the number of people serving long prison sentences, with far more people now serving very lengthy terms. Nearly 11,000 people in prison in England and Wales will spend at least 10 years in custody. More than two-thirds of them are serving indeterminate sentences and do not know when – or if – they will be released.

Prison numbers will also inevitably increase if the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill becomes law. The bill creates new offences that will essentially criminalise the lifestyles of Gypsies and Travellers and bump up the overall prison population with increased sentences for protesters. The new nationality and borders bill means that those arriving in Britain illegally could now be jailed for up to four years.

In addition, a growing number of people on parole are being recalled to prison on the basis of dubious information as the probation service stumbles to recover from the then justice secretary Chris Grayling’s disastrous decision to privatise parts of it in 2014. On 21 October, Kevin Lane, one of those wrongly recalled and only recently released from prison, held a rally in front of the House of Commons to draw attention to this scandal. “The landings are full of people who should be on parole but are back in prison,” he said.

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