Friday, 28 August 2015

Reimagining Our Prisons

Recently, I’ve been thinking more about how British prisons could be reformed in ways that might actually do more good than harm to prisoners, to staff, to victims of crime and to our communities in general. At present, ‘prison reform’ – at least as far as successive governments seem to be concerned – is actually a weaselly code for further cutting of costs regardless of the harms that result. Reimagining the prison is something entirely different, although reducing costs could still be one of the positive outcomes. 

Prisons: do we need them?
The first question is whether I believe that prisons are necessary for public safety. My quick response is yes, I do. In common with most people who have served a prison sentence, I can think of a small number of individuals that I have got to know personally inside who I believe are so dangerous to others that their presence in any community – no matter how closely supervised – will be a ticking time bomb, liable to explode at any moment. 

Their anti-social attitudes and distorted thinking, even when suppressed or concealed during offending behaviour courses, virtually guarantees that they will reoffend, creating misery for new victims as they go. So yes, I believe that we do need our prisons to contain the most dangerous individuals in order to reduce the risk that more innocent people will get seriously harmed or even killed. In some cases, this includes members of a prisoner’s own family or neighbours.

However, the number of very dangerous men – and they are predominantly male – in our prisons is comparatively small. In fact, the select and notorious group of lifers who are considered so dangerous that they are serving what are known as ‘whole life tariffs’ (ie they will almost certainly die in prison with no foreseeable prospect of release) is limited to around 60 out of a current prison population, as of the time of writing, of just over 86,000, leaving some 85,940-odd who can expect to be released at some stage, assuming that they don’t die of either natural causes while in custody or because they are themselves the victims of violence whilst inside. 

The only way out for 60 prisoners
Of these prisoners, 11,785 or so are currently on remand (of whom around 70 percent will either have charges dropped, will be acquitted by a jury or, even if convicted, will not be given a custodial sentence and will be released immediately from court). Thousands of others are serving short sentences – ranging from a few days to less than 12 months – during which they will never have any opportunity to address the reasons for their offending behaviour or access to any kind of meaningful support for various addictions or dependencies (drugs, alcohol, gambling). Such sentences can only be seen as being purely punitive, since there is not even the pretence of any rehabilitation on offer.

In the media, and on this blog, I’ve often described imprisonment in Britain as having been reduced to costly human warehousing. It often doesn’t even reduce crime significantly since various criminal activities seem to continue across the prison estate, particularly drug dealing, by means of illicit mobile phones, corrupt members of staff and networks of associates inside and out. Much as this ‘hidden offending’ continues to plague local communities, even when the driving force is behind bars yet still making money.

Coming out worse than they went in?
Worse still, individuals living with mental health problems and drug habits often seem to emerge back onto the street in an even worse state than when they were sent down. A significant number are discharged with heavy addictions that they didn’t have before they came into jail. If prisons were hospitals, the measurable outcomes would be far worse than even the most dysfunctional NHS trust on record. In these respects, imprisonment often causes harm, rather than reduces it.

So how can we start to reimagine our prisons? In my opinion the first challenge is to break our national dependency on – and obsession with – imprisonment as a response to crime (or most antisocial behaviour, for that matter). A surprising number of those detained on short sentences are actually irritating pests or nuisances, rather than violent offenders posing any real danger to the public. Jailing most people convicted of financial crime (especially theft and fraud) is particularly pointless, since imprisonment usually deprives the offender of any opportunity to recompense their victims.

Another particularly important question is why are we routinely holding thousands of unconvicted citizens on remand, particularly when the majority won’t even receive a custodial sentence assuming that they are eventually convicted in court? In some cases teenagers of 18 or 19 with no previous criminal record are being held on remand on Cat-B prison wings (and even in shared cells) with convicted, sometimes very dangerous adults. This is a recipe for disaster, including exploitation, bullying and even sexual abuse. Moreover, exposing impressionable young people to an environment where hardened criminality is rife is hardly likely to improve their life choices or reduce the risk of reoffending.

Remanding Young Prisoners (18-21) in adult prisons
By adopting a radical new approach to the issue of remand, where the automatic presumption should be in favour of post-charging bail (with appropriate monitoring and conditions as deemed necessary) as in the USA, this would mean that the onus would be on the prosecution to justify remand to secure accommodation – such as a bail hostel – in each case rather than sending those not yet convicted to prison, particularly those who have indicated that they will plead not guilty. Only in the most serious cases where there is a genuine risk of flight, intimidation of witnesses or other violence should the custodial threshold be met. 

Even then, I would propose the use of special remand units where convicted and unconvicted prisoners are not held together. In reality, this is already enshrined in law, however most prison authorities simply choose to ignore the provisions of the Prison Act (1952) and have been known to threaten or punish remand prisoners who dare to complain.

Next I believe we should address the issue of short sentences that are purely punitive, rather than containing any element of rehabilitation. My own view is that any custodial sentence of less than a year is absolutely pointless. Sending someone down for a few days or weeks is a complete and utter waste of scarce resources. It also vastly increases the risk of homelessness on release. A positive move would be to abolish all such short custodial sentences in favour of more supportive community-based penalties, which most research (including the Ministry of Justice’s own data) indicates are likely to be more effective in actually reducing low-level reoffending.

Prisons cannot cope with the elderly
Reducing our historically high prison population should also be a key priority. Is prison really an appropriate place for the very elderly, the terminally ill, females (most of whom are not violent), the profoundly disabled or those living with serious mental health problems? In many cases I would argue not and repeated reports issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons reinforce the view that the Prison Service is not equipped or funded to address such complex needs. Moreover, the rigours of imprisonment can affect these groups disproportionally, so perhaps more radical solutions are required. 

Some countries do not allow for the imprisonment of the elderly at all (usually those over 75), so why not learn from effective solutions that other jurisdictions have already identified? An interim solution might be to designate specific units or wings for prisoners who have specific needs where the focus is less on security and punitive regimes, and more on care and rehabilitation. Perhaps a pilot project involving secure residential accommodation for the elderly where they could both access their pensions and contribute to their own living costs might be worth exploring as an alternative to jail.

I believe that imprisonment needs to be regarded primarily as a necessary measure designed to contain those individuals who are assessed as being so dangerous that they cannot safely live back in the community until their behaviour and attitudes have been sufficiently modified, whether through education, therapy or vocational training. These targets need to be realistic and achievable, based on the offences committed, as well as the length and type of sentence.

David - now Lord - Blunkett
The absence of this structured approach was one of the many fatal flaws in the now discredited Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP), introduced by the then Labour Home Secretary David (now Lord) Blunkett in April 2005 and abolished by Parliament as an abject failure in 2012. A significant number of prisoners were handed IPPs with short tariffs for relatively minor repeat offences. 

Some who were given minimum tariffs of a few months or a couple of years in the early days of the sentencing regime are still languishing inside today, often because the main evidence of reduced risk required to satisfy the Parole Board is successful completion of offending behaviour courses that simply haven’t been available owing to shortages of resources. As the High Court ruled back in 2007, this is unlawful. In reality, it amounts to arbitrary detention that now achieves nothing beyond destroying those individuals – and their families – who are caught up in the nightmare.

I am convinced that if we really want to reimagine our prison system, then an urgent solution needs to be found to address the IPP problem, since these inmates account for around 4,600 (as of March 2015) of the current prison population. Managing them and their cases also places considerable strain on understaffed prison offender management units. Those interested in reading more about this issue can find a recent House of Commons briefing paper published in August 2015 here.

Solving the IPP question would both address a failed policy that even its architect, Lord Blunkett, has since admitted is “unjust”, as well as allow for a significant reduction in the ‘lifer’ population. This, in turn, could free up resources to improve the management and monitoring of those who would be released on licence back in the community.

Can HMPS be made fit for purpose?
I am convinced that if we take the approach of reducing the prison population very substantially – perhaps by identifying specific groups that do not really merit or require confinement, as well as actively seeking more effective alternatives – the Prison Service could be made fit for purpose, even in an era of austerity. The current overcrowding crisis could be addressed, while existing staff resources could be better deployed to refocus on offender management, rehabilitation, education and the tackling of security breaches. The reasons for low staff morale also need to be addressed.

Recently, Michael Gove, the new Justice Secretary, has made encouraging noises about prison reform. He has highlighted the need to put education at the centre of rehabilitation, as well as raising the issue of earned early release. 

Specific proposals have yet to be unveiled. However, while our prison population remains historically high at over 86,000, the scope for genuine reform is going to be severely limited, due to a toxic combination of overcrowding, understaffing and lack of resources. Unless the prisons budget is going to be substantially increased – which seems highly unlikely at a time when spending is being cut – then the only viable way out of the current crisis is likely to be a substantial reduction in the prison population. Hopefully Mr Gove will arrive at a similar conclusion.


  1. It's not just about reimagining prison but reimagining the whole justice system. A lot of the reforms you mention would only happen if there was a wholesale root and branch reimagining of how judges and magistrates deal with the people in front of them. All too often remand is used when completely unnecessary especially in the case of women. No judge or magistrate should be permitted to place someone on remand unless they have already proven that they are not going to show up to court and all other alternatives such as tagging have been tried. If a judge or magistrate remands someone without trying all other alternatives first they should be made to personally fund the cost of that person's incarceration. Watch the number of remands drop dramatically!

    The MoJ needs to put in place and properly fund community sentences/alternatives to prison as apparently a lot of judges and magistrates sentence people to prison because there are no alternatives available in their area (particularly for women). Community sentences have been proven to work better than incarceration and are much cheaper so its total madness to invest in prison places over community programmes/rehabs etc. In fact if most of those with drug and alcohol issues were in rehab and anyone with a non violent conviction were on a community sentence, the MoJ would automatically save a ton of money without even trying. Plus as you mention those in for financial crime would be able to make reparations if still in the community and working which they can't do from inside a prison.

    It's also easy for judges and magistrates to sentence people to prison because they really don't have any comprehension of what prisons are like. As part of their training they should spend some quality time as an "inmate" so they could actually understand from first hand experience the sheer pointlessness of a prison sentence for most people.

    It's good that Gove is making noises about revamping the courts system as it is long overdue but he also needs to take a long hard look at the training of the judiciary and magistrates and to legislate if necessary to ensure they look at all alternatives to custody and reserve incarceration for only those convicted of violent and sexual offences.

    He could also do with taking a look at those still on IPP sentences and deal with that issue. I had a friend sentenced to 8 months IPP who ended up serving 8 years and who will be on licence for 10 years thus making an 18 year sentence for something that was obviously not that serious as the offence only attracted an 8 month tariff.

    Only then could the reimagining of the prison service be undertaken as you very ably describe.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I definitely agree with much of what you have written. Far too many people are held unnecessarily on remand - at enormous cost to the taxpayer - when 70 percent of these will walk free from the dock (either acquitted or convicted but then sentenced to a non-custodial term). I think the use of remand should be massively curtailed. Unfortunately, with so many people facing courts with poor, limited or even no legal representation these days, fighting for bail can be an uphill struggle.

  2. As an officer in a B cat I'd have to say that most white collar criminals could be released after the first 2 weeks and they'd probably never even break the speed limit in the future.

    With regards to the rest, rehabilitation is mainly a unrealistic dream, poor education and upbringing may have led them to crime BUT giving them rudimentary education in prison won't counter the stigma of prison when it comes to future employment.
    The mentally ill should never be in a standard prison but frequently are and the fact that drug addicts are not subject to compulsory safe withdrawal is ridiculous; they leave with habit intact, needing to commit crime again to feed the habit.
    Finally, where I am I'd say around 25% of prisoners are foreign born / foreign nationals & 75% British of which around half are BME's.

    1. You are absolutely spot on about mentally ill. They should not be in general population.
      Prison for substance abusers should be an opportunity for medical intervention and, for some, a real chance of rehabilitation. This is done in Holland and Norway where the recalcitrant are maintained and those who desire, are given remedial treatment. Alas. no foreseeable UK Government would accept this as Policy and even if, by some miracle, a Regime did accept it, I doubt they would grant adequate funds.

    2. Thanks for both comments above. It's always good to hear a view from serving prison staff. All too often we don't hear their voices in debates about rehabilitation. Both comments regarding those living with mental illness are spot on. Whichever side of the door we've been on, we've all seen that our prisons are simply not equipped to deal with serious mental health conditions. There has to be a more effective - and humane - way of dealing with these issues.

      I also fully agree about the stigma of imprisonment having a massively negative impact on ex-prisoners. Most of those ex-cons I'm still in touch with are either unemployed (and effectively unemployable as a result of criminal record, plus illiteracy or addictions) or else are lucky enough to have the resources and skills to be self-employed (or occasionally work for family or friends who know about their record but don't care). A small number of articulate ex-prisoners do find jobs with charities or support organisations for other ex-cons, but the number is pretty low. Otherwise, it's a massive barrier to lawful employment.

  3. Thank you for a very well considered post. As usual I find myself agreeing with many of your comments.

    It is imperative that the prison population is significantly reduced. There are so many individuals incarcerated right now that really don't need to be. From my time inside I met many non-violent first time offenders for whom prison was a totally inappropriate 'punishment'.

    The reimagining of prisons needs to start from the top down. Prison should be the reserve of those who truly need to be taken out of civilised society for the protection of everybody else. The true test of a custodial sentence should be based only on the risk of harm to a community. All too often prison is seen as the ultimate punishment for any crime and that once an individual is imprisoned then all is well with the world. As you quite rightly state short sentences are pointless. Indeed in my local area just last week a prolific shoplifter, of no fixed abode, was sentenced to four week in prison for stealing £30 worth of meat. He'll be out in a fortnight with nothing in his pocket and a hefty bill in the region of £300 to pay his court fees, costs and victim surcharges. No doubt goods will be stolen from another store to cover these costs.

    I am totally against the implementation of the IPP sentencing and am glad it is no longer used. However, as a principal, I can see that it does have some merit. To use an analogy it's similar to being admitted to hospital. A doctor will decide you need inpatient treatment and won't discharge you until you are fit to leave. You wouldn't be allowed to stay longer than is necessary or discharged before it's safe to do so. Prison sentences should work in a similar way. If an individual is deemed too dangerous to be at large in a community it's inappropriate for a judge to decide some arbitrary period of time when that person is safe to be released regardless of their state of mind at the time.

    IPP sentences were seriously flawed because they only imposed a minimum tariff. Much more could be achieved by handing down a minimum and maximum sentence. For example a minimum of 1 year, maximum 5 years. This would give a massive incentive for the inmate to engage in rehabilitation and education but still give a light at the end of the tunnel and ultimately a 'worst case' release date.

    Of course, this is a very simplistic view and isn't easy to implement with risk averse offender managers not willing to approve release. However, removing all but the most dangerous from our prisons and concentrating on their rehabilitation, education and reintegration will be a massive improvement on the large scale human warehousing we see today.

    1. Thank you for your contribution. I fully agree that the key issue should be whether there is a continuing risk of harm. A person who may have killed a loved one in an assisted suicide (for example) is highly unlikely ever to reoffend, so I think we need to ask ourselves why such individuals would merit a prison sentence, as opposed to community supervision. In such cases, I doubt that there is even much deterrent value since we all know the potential life sentence for murder, yet so-called 'mercy killings' continue to occur.

      In the case of crimes against property (where there has been no violence), I doubtful that a prison sentence really achieves anything. In particular, the key issue of restorative justice is often missing. Most people who have have things stolen would much rather have their possessions back or appropriate compensation, neither of which is generally achieved by imprisonment. That's why community penalties with restitution would probably be more suitable and effective in delivering justice.

      In my opinion, the IPP sentence failed miserably because of two key issues: the first is that assessment of risk is always subjective. It is human nature to assess risk based on past experience of other people's behaviour. To that extent, one IPP prisoner is always being judged by the past failures of others, rather than their own unique situation. For this reason - and the fear of future criticism if things do go seriously wrong - psychologists and probation staff tend to be very risk averse when dealing with IPP prisoners, even more so than the Parole Board. This results in a comparatively low number of releases on licence.

      The second issue, of course, is the continuing lack of resources to provide the offending behaviour courses that have been prescribed in individual sentence plans. Personally, I have doubts about the effectiveness of many of these courses based on personal experience of fellow prisoners who have completed them. However, when identified courses haven't been made available, the end result is likely to be knock-backs during the parole process and IPPs serving many years beyond their minimum tariff.

      While some IPPs remain dangerous, there are many others whose offences - if committed today - would not attract substantial custodial terms, nor at least ten years on licence post-release. These 'legacy' cases continue to consume an inordinate amount of resources and public funds to manage them. Sadly, the government missed the opportunity to address this issue back in 2012 when the IPP was abolished. Although efforts have been made to speed up the release of those still serving the sentence, resources remain inadequate and the current overcrowding and understaffing of our prisons ensures that progress will remain slow. And, as you rightly observe, the result is human warehousing.

  4. Good article-made me think.Just one comment: So 60 doing Whole Life Tariffs are the dangerous ones? There are a fair few dangerous cons in the general population too. I remember dangerous YPs being moved into the Adult Wings before their due time and they were usually really frightening Sociopaths. Oh- And get the sick and disabled out first.

    1. Thanks for your comment. My point was that there are only 60 or so prisoners whose sentence tariffs mean they will probably never be released. There is an expectation that others - particularly lifers - will eventually be released on life licence (and subject to recall until their death). However, that doesn't, of course, mean that some of these folk aren't very dangerous, as are some prisoners who are serving long determinate terms. My point is that since almost all those who are currently in custody will be released at some point, the issue is what can be done to ensure that prison at least provides an opportunity for rehabilitation, even if some individuals choose not to reform themselves.

      I completely agree about the need to find appropriate alternatives for the very ill (particularly those with terminal conditions) and the severely disabled, many of whom are also elderly and very vulnerable. Personally, I would only use custodial sentences for those aged over 70 in the most serious cases where there is a real danger of further criminal offences being committed.

  5. I spent some time with YPs on an adult wing. They faired pretty well because they were generally looked after pretty well by the older guys who were kind of a father figure. I personally felt gutted when a very popular YP was moved from the adult B Cat I was in to a YOI. His life would have been so much harder but as a YP he shouldn't be imprisoned where he was but moved 100's of miles away from his family

    1. Thanks for sharing your own experiences. In general, I'm not in favour of Young Prisoners (YPs) aged 18-21 being in adult prisons. I've been in two Cat-Bs where this was done and in both cases there were serious problems, particularly where these lads, some of them barely 18, were vulnerable because of immaturity or mental health problems.

      While it is true that some older prisoners might become positive role models or mentors for YPs, I still feel that the risk of abuse or exploitation remains just too great. YOIs (which have many problems of their own) exist for a reason and some staff members in adult jails just don't have the skills or training to manage YPs effectively or humanely.

  6. Anonymous-you misunderstood me. I was specifically talking about YPs moved to Adult Wing because they were deemed too dangerous for YP Wing. Anyway, the important first step is to remove the disabled (mentally and physically) from the general population. It was heartbreaking to see these people suffering and not only by just being there in Prison but by the way they are treated by many Cons and Screws alike.

    1. Thanks for clarifying your comment. I think many of us have met YPs who have been 'starred up' as it used to be called and placed in adult prisons because they are too dangerous or violent to be in YOIs. I'm not convinced that this is an appropriate practice as it just transfers the problem somewhere else, rather than addressing the risk.

  7. "Family Visitation Providers" Providing private and group transportation services to incarcerated love ones throughout the state of Florida. We are diligently working to bring you more routes and the best rates to help you stay connected to your incarcerated loved ones. We need your help! Please help us by spreading the word to other families! All prison trips requested will be added to our monthly schedule. Any questions or concerns please email
    Phone: (305) 928-0363

    1. Thanks for flagging up your service for families in the USA.

  8. It sounds like U.K. prisons are just like those here in the United States; human warehouses where inmates have very little chance of rehabilitation. We have the same problems, people with mental health issues and addictions that go untreated. Your idea of a bail hostel is very good, I hope someone who can initiate it reads your post.

  9. My experiance of the prison system is that the management seem to want to tick the correct boxes to make them look good. I was in a private prison and somebody realised that the targets were not being met. All of a sudden, people were being made to complete paperwork to pass exams. Some of us were even being told to date the paperwork to a time that we were not even in prison. We were given tests to complete in our cells and were given all the answers to copy out. I Passed the theory tests to three city and guilds exams in one lunch time. I am not clever, just copied what they wanted me to write.
    This establishment was inspected by the prison service and given a gold star. I feel sorry for the poor guys that the prison service cannot be bothered to work with. Shame on you Serco