At first thought, you’d think the UK prison population would reflect the gender balance of the country.

At the last national census in 2011, there were 32.153M females and 31.029M males making a total population of 63.182M. On this basis, the female population comprise 51% of the total population. If the2011 census population is then split into 3 groups, those aged under 15, those aged 15-64 and those aged 65 or more, the only age group where males outnumber females is the under 15’s group. Since the total number of children in prison aged 10-14 is 38 individuals, which is concerning in itself, we can ignore the group under 15 for wider analysis purposes.

The Howard League for Penal Reform is a small charity that amongst other things, monitors the weekly UK prison population. For the week ending 11 Nov 2014, they reported a total prison population, including young offenders of 85,903.

This includes a figure of 9,218 people above the certified normal accommodation (CNA) capacity level, with the five most overcrowded prisons (Wandsworth, Lincoln, Exeter, Swansea & Leicester in descending order of total overcrowding numbers) accounting for 16% of this total.

What is breath-taking is the number of males out of this total prison population. According to the Howard Leagues figures, this numbered 81,982 for the week ending 11 Nov 2014, or 95% or the total prison population.

When I read this figure, I had two thoughts. Either females commit a lot of crimes for which they are prosecuted, but don’t face prison time as a punishment. Or alternatively, there is something about the male gender that causes them to overwhelmingly commit the crimes for which people are sent to jail. Some prison offense crimes such as rape, serious assault, serial murder and armed robbery are likely to be carried out overwhelmingly by males. Others such as serious fraud and criminal negligence are probably more evenly balanced by gender.

If post-prison-release, re-offending rates are high and if prison time isn’t recognised as an effective deterrent to serious crime, then what can be done in the 21st Century to stop so many men committing crimes that result in prison time?

What part does aggression place in committing crimes that result in prison time? If aggression is understood to be a major contributor and testosterone levels found to significantly fuel aggression, then can we as a society change the levels of testosterone in our population, simply as a more humane preventative alternative to incarcerating males after major crime is committed?

Apart from aggression, poor self-esteem (powerlessness) of the offenders, manifest in crimes to assert power, may be a second major area to tackle. Such crimes likely include; rape, serious domestic violence, paedophilia, serious assault and armed robbery.

In addition to aggression and poor self-esteem, how much crime is committed because of poor risk evaluation by the offenders? There are at least two parts to this. The risk evaluation in the moment. And the risk evaluation leading up to the moment a crime is committed. An example of the later is when people choose to join a gang that engages in criminal activity such as drug dealing, inter-gang warfare and murder. Perhaps more can be done to teach kids in schools about how to evaluate life risks more objectively.

If kids and young adults are:

  • taught to make better risk assessments,
  • encouraged to channel aggression into positive outlets such as adventure activities, sport or physical exercise,
  • earn pride either on the sports field or in the classroom,

then if nothing else, we might expect to see the prison population by gender change dramatically.

A separate concern is the 11% level of over-crowding in UK prisons at present above certified normal accommodation. Like for the London housing price problem, the real problem may simply be a poor understanding of demand and supply changes.

If the UK Justice system working closely with UK city/town/village communities is achieving higher criminal conviction rates that in the past, while overall crime is also rising, then the supply of prison places available needs to reflect these changes.

The alternative is some form of crime prevention, including the kinds of measures outlined above. What UK government policy makers cannot ethically do is to pressure the Justice System into invoking:

  • shorter prison sentences for serious crime,
  • actual prison sentences that cover only a fraction of the announced 20 year or life sentence (instead of time off for good behaviour, the opposite could apply – an extension of prison time for bad behaviour),
  • community release,

simply to alleviate the prison capacity shortage, because naive government budget cuts don’t allow the prison capacity to rise to meet current and future needs.

By the same token, the Justice system has an ethical obligation to enforce health and safety rules within prisons, especially overcrowded ones. Two extreme examples of this are;

  • ensuring prisoners are not treated unfairly by staff,
  • ensuring that prisoners aren’t significantly mis-treated by fellow prisoners, for the duration of their sentence.

To be fair, the prison authorities need to constantly exercise power with responsibility. That means being both kind and tough. Kind in the sense of respecting each prisoner’s dignity, but tough in the sense of eradicating violence, intimidation and drugs within prisons.