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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

How are our prisons changing?

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The latest edition of the Prison Reform Trust's Bromley Briefings shows the desperate state of the prison system in revealing detail.

Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile

Prisons are an emotive subject and when the spotlight is on prison reform as it is now with new Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s emerging plans, it’s invaluable to be able to check your facts.

The most valuable reference point for most people interested in penal reform remains the Prison Reform Trust‘s regular Bromley Briefings.

The latest (Summer 2016) edition is 76 pages long and can be found here.

Here are some key facts from the briefing, on this occasion, I’ve tried to dig a bit deeper and not focus on the headline findings with which many regular readers will be familiar.

Prison safety

Regrettably, most of us know that assaults, deaths and suicides have risen substantially in recent years. Other worrying statistics which demonstrate the deteriorating safety levels in our prisons are:

  • Emergency services were called out more than 26,600 times to incidents in UK prisons in 2015.
  • There has been a 57% increase in the number of fires in prison in the past year. There were 1,935 fires in 2015—an average of more than 160 a
    month.

Life and indeterminate sentences

Despite the formal ending of Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection (IPPs), its legacy still has a massive impact on the prison population:

  • Four-fifths (81%) of people serving an IPP sentence are still in prison despite having passed their tariff expiry date—the minimum period they must spend in custody.
  • People were held for 44 months beyond tariff on average—however many still in prison will have been held for considerably longer.
  • The rate of release for IPP prisoners has increased in the past year. In 2015 for every 1,000 people serving an IPP sentence 121 were released.

BB summer 16

Prison service resources

Unsurprisingly, the details of funding for prisons make for dispiriting reading:

  • The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) has reduced its budget by nearly a quarter since 2010–11. Between 2010–11 and 2014–15 it delivered cumulative savings of almost £900m.
  • NOMS has a savings target of a further £91m for 2015–16.
  • The cost of a prison place reduced by 18% between 2009–10 and 2014–15. The average annual overall cost of a prison place in England and Wales is now £36,259.59
  • The number of staff employed in the public prison estate has fallen by 30% in the last six years—13,720 fewer staff looking after nearly 450
    more people.

Treatment and conditions

As readers will be familiar from a number of highly critical prison inspector reports, the performance of prisons has been deteriorating markedly:

  • The proportion of prisons whose performance is “of concern” or “of serious concern” almost doubled from one in eight (13%) in 2012–13, to
    one in four (24%) in 2014–15.
  • Prisons are getting bigger. 48% of prisoners are now held in prisons of 1,000 places or more.
  • The number of people achieving level 1 or 2 qualifications (GCSE level) has plummeted — falling by 37% in English and 34% in Maths
    between the 2011–12 and 2014–15 academic years.
  • Nearly 8,700 prisoners are working in the public prison estate, and a further 2,700 are working in private prisons. In 2014–15 they worked a total of 14.9 million hours.

Conclusion

This edition of the Bromley Briefing clearly shows that the prison system is swiftly approaching breaking point. It remains to be seen whether the MoJ’s plans for penal reform will have any impact — especially since it seems rather unlikely that Mr Gove will still be Justice Secretary in a few weeks time.

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