Short sentences in dreadful jails do more harm than good. The justice secretary is right to want replace them

The overcrowded prisons of England and Wales are in an awful state after eight years of austerity. In this time, five justice secretaries have failed to come to grips with the problem and moved on. Ian Acheson, a former prison governor, has described jails as “dystopian hellholes where it is easier to score your next fix than to get a shower”. Nearly 190 kilos of drugs were seized inside prisons in 2017; one in five prisoners tested positive for drugs. The prisons minister, Rory Stewart, has proposed airport-level searches of both body and baggage for anyone entering a prison – officers as well as visitors – to stem the problem in the 10 worst-affected jails. Partly as a result of the availability of drugs, levels of violence inside remain shockingly high. In a prison population of 83,500, there were 32,000 assaults recorded last year, and five murders. Even more aggression is directed inwards: there were 87 suicides and 50,000 incidents of self-harm.

Mr Stewart proposed last month that all prison sentences of under three months be abolished. His boss David Gauke, the justice secretary, has gone one better and now proposes to abolish all prison sentences of less than six months, while retaining long sentences for those convicted of violent crimes.

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