A view of the landings of C wing and E wing from the central star at HMP Pentonville, London, UK.
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

We have to rethink the way we use prisons

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Justice Committee calls for reinvestment in prisons and probation and ban on sentences less than one year.

Today (3 April 2019) the House of Commons Justice Committee published a hard hitting report urging the government to rethink the way we use prisons. The report, Prison population 2022: planning for the future includes a number of headline-grabbing conclusions and recommendations.

Conclusion

Over the past 25 years, the prison population has grown significantly from 44,246 in 1993 to 82,384 as at December 2018. Capacity has not kept pace with demand and many prisons are now deemed to be overcrowded. Whilst the number of people in prison has remained roughly stable since 2012, the amount spent on prisons has fallen in recent years. The Ministry of Justice currently has a gap in its finances across 2018–19 and 2019–20 of £1.2 billion which equates to a reduction in the prison population of roughly 20,000 prisoners.

Ploughing funding into building prisons to accommodate prison projections is not a sustainable approach in the medium or long-term. There must be a focus on investing in services to reduce the £15 billion annual cost of reoffending and prevent offenders from continually returning to prison, thereby reducing the size of the prison population.

Recommendations

Some of the reports key recommendations are:

  • The Ministry must monitor and take seriously the trend of racial and ethnic disparity in the prison population.
  • For IPP prisoners, the aim of the system should be that most are safely managed back into communities at the earliest opportunity. As part of its review of sentencing, the Ministry should consult on legislative solutions to both release and recall of indeterminate sentenced prisoners to bring about sentencing certainty.
  • The Committee supports the Government’s approach to the abolition of short, ineffective prison sentences. The Committee repeats the recommendation of its Transforming Rehabilitation report that the Government should introduce presumption against short custodial sentences and believes. In addition to their welcome move towards avoiding the use of sentences under six months, they should model the effects of abolishing sentences of fewer than 12 months.
  • The Judiciary is entitled to expect that, in addition to being punished, those who are subject to probation supervision have good quality interventions and an opportunity to move on with their lives. The Government should as a medium-term priority, consider the value of judicial monitoring in its effort to improve sentencer confidence.
Accompanying the publication of the report is  a 6 second video summarising how much we spend on our prisons.

Projecting the prison population

The rapid growth in the prison population over the past twenty five years halted in 2012 since which time the population has been roughly stable with a small decline over the last year. The rise in the prison population in recent years has resulted from a greater proportion of those convicted being given a custodial sentence and custodial sentences becoming longer. This has been driven by a complex set of factors. The most significant explanation has been legislative factors created by a series of political and policy choices by successive Governments and parliaments. The Committee recommends that when changes to sentencing legislation are being debated in parliament (ministers’ first reaction to concern about any form of crime tends to be to increase sentencing powers and extend maximum periods of imprisonment), MPs are informed of the likely impact on any changes on the current over-stretched prison system.

The nature of the prison population is rapidly changing. A higher proportion of offenders are in prison for serious violent or sexual offences. The average age of the prison population is also rising. Many prisoners have mental health problems, making it difficult for them to navigate the criminal justice system, and levels of literacy are often low. All these factors and others make managing the current cohort of prisoners extremely challenging.

Prison safety

The report is strongly critical of the current situation in our prisons which it describes as “an enduring crisis in prison safety and decency” that has lasted five years and is taking significant additional investment to rectify, further diverting funds from essential rehabilitative initiatives that could stem or reverse the predicted growth. There is a grave risk that we become locked in a vicious cycle of prisons perpetually absorbing huge amounts of criminal-justice related spending, creating a perverse situation in which there is likely to be more “demand” for prison by sentencers in areas where they have less access to effective community alternatives.

While the Committee says the MoJ has been right to try to restore safety and decent living conditions in prison, it notes that this has come “directly at the expense of rehabilitation and purposeful activity”. It urges the MoJ to refocus its efforts to maintain a dual approach to maintain safety and decency, as well as improve rehabilitation, noting that regime restrictions related to staffing shortages and other disruptions severely undermine the delivery of rehabilitative services including education, mental health treatment, substance misuse treatment and offending behaviour programmes. 

The Committee concludes that this results in immeasurable wasted costs and does not represent an efficient or effective use of funds. The nature of regimes and restricted access to rehabilitative activities has a cyclical impact on the degradation of regimes and safety, owing to the boredom and frustration of prisoners enduring impoverished regimes, which can in turn lead to violence and self-harm.

In other words, it is not possible to restore safety and decency without investing in rehabilitation and ensuring that prisoners are out of their cells, working and learning, tackling their problems and planning for their release.

Conclusion

The Justice Committee, under the stewardship of its Chair Bob Neill, has a well-deserved reputation for publishing robust and helpful reports. Not content with merely complaining about problems in the criminal justice system, the Committee is careful to provide constructive and politically achievable recommendations. We must wait to see the Ministry of Justice’s response.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image which is of HMP Pentonville. You can see Andy’s work here.

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