A perfect storm?
Anyone and everyone who wants accurate up-to-date information on what is going on in our prisons relies on the prison factfiles produced by the Prison Reform Trust. Known as the Bromley Briefings, they are issued twice a year. The Summer 2022 briefing was published last Friday (15 July 2022). As usual, I have perused the Briefing in depth and found 10 key facts to share in this post. Since readers of the blog are more than averagely well informed about penal affairs, I have tried to feature some of the less well-known issues.
The Prison Reform Trust itself has highlighted the fact that the prison service is facing an exodus of staff ahead of a projected increase in the prison population of nearly 25% in the next four years. The factfile reveals that more than one in seven (15%) prison officers left the service last year. Of those, half had been in the role for less than three years; and more than a quarter left within the first year.
These latest figures have sparked fears that the service faces significant competing challenges on the horizon—with too few staff and too many prisoners—which are already hampering efforts to provide safe and purposeful prisons following the disruption of the pandemic.
PRT acknowledges the prison service’s success in attracting people to become prison officers in recent years, but highlights its subsequent failure to retain them and draws attention to a looming staffing crisis. The government has already pledged £17 million to try and stem the haemorrhage, but it remains unclear what impact this will have at a time when the country faces a national labour shortage and upward pressure on wages.
1: Over-use of prison
In 2021 comment despite the pandemic, more than 42,000 people were sent to prison to serve a sentence. The majority (61%) had committed a non-violent offence and nearly two in five (38%) were sentenced to serve six months or less.
2: Longer life sentences
People serving life sentences are spending more of their sentence in prison. On average they spend 18 years in custody, up from 13 years in 2002. This is set to rapidly increase as judges are imposing substantially longer tariff periods. The average minimum term imposed for murder rose from 13 years in 2000 to 21 years in 2021.
3: Recalls remain high
Since the Offender Rehabilitation Act which means that anyone serving two days or longer is subject to a minimum of 12 months supervision, the number of people recalled back to custody has increased, particularly amongst women. 7,006 people serving a sentence of less than 12 months were recalled to prison in the year to December 2021.
4: The cost of prison is falling
The cost of a prison place reduced by 13% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2020–21. The average annual overall cost of a prison place in England and Wales is now £48,162.
5: The continuing problem of remand
People on remand currently make up more than one in seven people in prison (16%)—12,747 people, the highest figure since 2010. One in 10 people (10%) remanded into custody by the magistrates’ courts in 2021 were subsequently acquitted. A further 12% of people received a non-custodial sentence. In the Crown Court, the figures were 11% and 15%, respectively. Black men are 26%, and mixed ethnicity men 22% more likely to be remanded in custody at the Crown Court than white men.
More than third (37%) of self-inflicted deaths in 2021 involved people held on remand—far higher than the proportion of the prison population they represent (16%).
Four in 10 (40%) children in custody are on remand. Almost three-quarters of children remanded in custody in the year to March 2021 were either subsequently acquitted (37%) or given a non-custodial sentence (37%).
6: Racial disproportionality
Over a quarter (27%) of the prison population, 21,804 people, are from a minority ethnic group. The largest minority ethnic groups are Black or Black British (13%), followed by Asian or Asian British (8%), Mixed (5%) and other ethnic groups (2%). The economic cost of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) over-representation in our prison system is estimated to be £234 million a year.
Research has found a clear direct association between ethnic group and the odds of receiving a custodial sentence. Black people are 53%, Asian 55%, and other ethnic groups 81% more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the Crown Court, even when factoring in higher not-guilty plea rates.
7: Life and indeterminate sentences
Many people in prison don’t know when, or if, they might be released. 10,663 people are currently in prison serving an indeterminate sentence—16% of the sentenced prison population, up from 9% in 1993. England and Wales have more people serving life sentences than Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, and Sweden combined.
Of those 10,663 people, 8,610 people have yet to be released. 7,056 people are serving a life sentence and 1,554 people are serving sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP). The remainder, 2,053 people, are back in prison having been recalled from licence.
There are currently almost as many IPP-sentenced people being recalled back to prison as are being released. In the last 12 months 612 people serving an IPP sentence on licence were recalled and returned to custody, whereas only 734 people were either released for the first time or re-released having been previously recalled.
9: Women in prison
Women make up just 4% of the total prison population.
Most women (68%) in 2021 who entered prison under sentence committed a non-violent offence. Half of women (50%) entering prison in 2021 to serve a sentence had received a sentence of less than six months, although this has decreased from 62% in 2019.
Seven in 10 women in prison (71%) reported that they had mental health issues compared with nearly half of men (47%). Rates of self-harm amongst women are at the highest level since available records began in 2004. Women account for a disproportionate level of self-harm in prison—last year 22% of all self-harm incidents in prison were by women, despite making up only 4% of the total prison population. Half of women (50%) left prison without settled accommodation in 2020–21.
10: Mental health
1,095 people were transferred from prison to a secure hospital in 2021, the highest number since records began. At a third of prisons inspected in 2019–20 officers had not undergone adequate mental health awareness training, despite repeated recommendations.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.
Reading all this and it is clear there are many very major problems, plus the fact there seems to be nobody in power who is prepared to do something about it all.
Folks go to prison as a form of punishment, they shouldn’t be punished whilst in prison.
It will never happen that a prisoner when released is an improved person and will never go back inside.
Some of what I read from prisoners is unbelievable !
Some of what I read about prison staff is also unbelievable !
It’s all one big mess and will remain so forever
Prisoners and prison staff have been failed big time
Where will prisons be in 20 years time, a whole lot worse off then we are now
Like many, I am in total despair !!