No one who works in prisons and secure hospitals could fail to notice recent increases in the number of inmates. My work as a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist is with people convicted of violent crimes, and I’m acutely aware that, since 2000, the average length of a custodial sentence in England and Wales has nearly doubled. As of 2021, there were 60 people under whole-life orders (sentences with no possibility of parole), a concept introduced in the UK in 1983. These people will die in prison as punishment for their offences.
Some reading this will think, “And quite right too.” I’ve learned a great deal about people’s capacity for cruelty in my job. I understand why extreme measures, including total-life incarceration, might seem like the only answer when faced with those whose violence and brutality are unspeakable. But are we at the point where long prison sentences are in fact being used as a form of vengeance against the most serious offenders, and is this really justified?
In modern times, a range of prison sentences were developed to respond to different types of offending. These replaced eye-for-an-eye physical penalties and state killing. The concept of a “life sentence” in the UK and most other jurisdictions was that the offender’s life came under the control of the state. They could obtain parole but be jailed at any time if they broke the release conditions; “getting life” did not imply death in prison. The number of years to be spent behind bars (the “tariff”) was at the sentencing judge’s discretion. It was not unusual for someone convicted of homicide to get a 10- or 12-year tariff if it was their first offence.
All this has changed in recent years, notably in the US and UK. Over the last four decades, the US prison population has quadrupled, and at 2 million, it now has the highest per capita rate in the world. One in seven US prisoners is serving a life term, five times the number in 1984. Before Britons all gasp in horror, note that one in eight prisoners in the UK is serving a life sentence, the highest rate in Europe by a substantial margin. The big shift in this category occurred in the UK in the early 2000s. The then Labour government, keen not to be seen as soft on crime, expanded sentencing and also added to the kinds of offences that attracted whole-life orders. Sentence lengths have continued to swell ever since.
It is hard not to think that harsher sentencing reflects a wholesale wish for revenge, a rise in a kind of socially sanctioned outrage, which is fanned by increasingly populist impulses in the press and political arena. But the job of the law is actually to prevent revenge, not enact it. As the philosopher Francis Bacon said: “Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.” That wildness is nicely captured by the familiar headline word “outrage”: rage out of control, bursting its bounds.
I think revenge may also be a way of dealing with grief. I vividly remember a patient I worked with who had killed a stranger when mentally ill and was sent to the hospital for treatment. His victim’s family were indignant that he wasn’t in prison, perhaps believing that secure hospitals are a softer option. They barraged us with phone calls and threatened legal action against us if we released him (a decision which was not even down to the hospital).
Perhaps their strength of feeling was linked to a kind of survivor’s guilt, a sense they would be letting the victim down if they did not try to ensure the murderer suffered as much as possible. I suspect such feelings will only have made their bereavement worse – as the adage goes, hating someone else is like taking poison yourself and waiting for them to die. But as a response to trauma, it is not inevitable. For every vengeful family member of a homicide victim, another will choose not to be, feeling that retribution and hatred won’t do anything to replace their loss or assuage their pain. It seems a complex matter of conditioning, choice, and sometimes religious belief that sends individuals in either direction; I count myself fortunate that I’ve not had to stand at that junction myself, and don’t wish to judge anyone who has.
Concerns about the corrosive effect of vengeance on the individual can also be applied to the public at large. A society obsessed with revenge is not a healthy, resilient one. And there are also pragmatic considerations – can we really afford the kind of vengeance manifested in lengthy or whole-life sentences? The average cost is about £40,000 a year per person. Keeping so many people incarcerated for longer will ultimately cost taxpayers millions. No doubt some will call to bring back the death penalty as a cheaper option, but capital punishment is unethical due to the number of false convictions, and dangerous in terms of state power. It is also pointless. There is little evidence that any penalty works to deter offenders; data on offender recidivism indicates that only rehabilitative initiatives, such as addiction treatment, literacy and employment programmes have a tangible impact on reoffending.
There are voices, especially in the US, who have called for the abolition of prisons altogether, and their replacement with community offender rehabilitation programmes. For nonviolent offenders, this idea bears serious consideration. But there will always be those who need to be detained or placed in specialist secure hospitals to manage the risk they pose, so total abolition seems to me both unlikely and unwise.
That does not mean using extreme sentencing as a form of revenge against such people is sound, either practically or morally. Giving judges greater flexibility in sentencing and increasing investment in rehabilitation programmes – while at the same time providing more support for victims of violent crime – look like wiser uses of precious public funds. Let us follow Bacon’s advice and turn to the law to “weed out” revenge, not amplify it.
Gwen Adshead is a forensic psychiatrist and the co-author, with Eileen Horne, of The Devil You Know: Stories of Human Cruelty and Compassion.
Why Punish? by Nigel Walker (Oxford, £10.99)
Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition by Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Haymarket, £16.99)
Forgiveness, An Exploration by Marina Cantacuzino (Simon & Schuster, £14.99)