Prisons in Crisis

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Lecture date: Sun, 15th May, 2016
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Estimated 7 min read

The Howard League is an independent charity, a membership organisation that campaigns for less crime, safer communities, fewer people in prison. In 2016, we celebrate our 150th anniversary – having been founded in 1866 by admirers of John Howard, commonly thought of as the first ever prison reformer.


It is fitting that this talk is delivered in the Brockway room at Conway Hall. Fenner Brockway was also a prison reformer and the co-author of English Prisons Today in 1922. Like Howard, who was imprisoned during the Napoleonic Wars, Brockway became a campaigner after being jailed as a conscientious objector during the First World War.

As of last Friday 13 May, there were 85,381 men, women and children imprisoned in England and Wales. In 1994, the average prison population was 48,631. Prison numbers have almost doubled in the space of two decades. Between the years 1945 and 1992, prison numbers grew by an annual average of 2.5%. Yet between 1993 and 2008, the average prison population leapt upwards by 4% year on year. Needless to say, this bears no relation to a very gradual increase in the general population.

How does this bear comparison to other jurisdictions? We measure international prison population rates by taking the number of prisoners by every 100,000 of the general prison population. Using this measure, England and Wales has a prison population rate of 148 prisoners per 100,000 of its general population.

That is dwarfed by the prison population in the United States, the capital of what they call mass incarceration. There, the prison population rate is a staggering 707 per 100,000 of its general population – so not so very far off 1 in every 100 Americans behind bars.
But if you look at our neighbours on the other side of the English Channel, you soon realise that England and Wales is an outlier in European terms. In Frances, the prison population rate is 98, Italy 87, Germany 76 and in Finland it is as low as 55.
Do crime rates have any relationship with prison numbers? We know, for example, that recorded crime has fallen dramatically in England and Wales over the same period that the prison population almost doubled.

As the charts reproduced below demonstrate, different international jurisdictions have had broadly the same experiences in terms of rises and falls in recorded crime, with very different stories reflected in their prison populations. The truth is there is no easy link to be made between prison rates and crime rates. Of course, locking up people does contribute to some crime being prevented due to incapacitation but studies have shown that the big driver behind the fall in crime in this country has been improvements to home and car security, as well as the drop in price of electronic goods. Even if you can burgle a house, managing to carry out the huge flat-screen TV is both risky and won’t net you much money secondhand.

Who is in prison? Prisoners are more than ten times likely to have been taken into care than the general population. Around half of men and a third of women in prison will have been excluded from school. Again about half of men and a staggering 71% of women in prison will have no qualifications. Homelessness, unemployment and drug use are perhaps not surprisingly common experiences for those in prison. Most shockingly, however, some 72% of men and 70% of women behind bars face two or more mental illnesses.
And what are they in prison for? 82% of women and 65% of men are in prison for non-violent offences. 1 in 5 women are in prison for fine default.


The end result is that our prisons are chronically overcrowded. Three in four men’s prisons hold more people than they were designed for. Between 2013 and 2015 the rise in the prison population has slowed but we still saw the population rise by 618 prisoners. At the same time, however, the austerity agenda in government saw the Ministry of Justice cut the numbers of places by 3,561. Almost 19,000 prisoners are ‘doubled up’ in cells designed for one person and another 800 are ‘trebled up’ in cells designed for two. At its worst, overcrowding can mean two prisoners sharing a 6ft-by-10ft cell designed for one with little ventilation and an unscreened toilet at the foot of their bunks. Current pressures mean that people are placed where there is a bed available, not necessarily in the prison which would best attempt to reduce reoffending.

Not only are there more prisoners but fewer prison places, there are also fewer prison officers. Front line numbers in prisons were cut by 41& between May 2010 and June 2014. Although the authorities have since tried to recruit new staff, they struggle to retain them – particularly in the south east of England – and so the net result is that there remains a shortfall in staff numbers causing problems. Overcrowding and staff shortages matter because they have a huge impact on every aspect of the prison regime. As well as cramped conditions, it means purposeful activity such as work or education, family visits, trips to healthcare etc are limited for all prisoners. There are too many prisoners for these facilities and not enough staff to unlock the cell doors and escort prisoners to the places they would need to be.
This leads to a series of problems that have now left the prisons in crisis.

Prison has a poor record of preventing reoffending, with almost half of all adults reconvicted within one year of being released. For those serving short sentences of less than a year, this increases to 59%. By contrast, community sentences have a lower reoffending rate – about half that of a short prison sentences. They are also considerably cheaper. Overcrowding also creates problems of violence behind bars. There were 17,581 assault incidents in prison in 2015. More 2,500 of these were classified as serious – where the victim has been hospitalised as a result.

There were 28,881 recorded incidents of self-harm in 2015. The rate of self-harm by male prisoners has doubled in the last 10 years. Women, meanwhile, make up only 5% of the prison population but account for one in four of all incidents of self-harm in prison. The end result is that levels of suicide in prison are at their highest levels since 2007. In 2015, 89 people took their own lives in prison. Homicide has also risen. 8 people were murdered in prison in 2015 – the highest number since records began in 1973. Life inside is not only dangerous for prisoners. It is also dangerous for staff.

In 2015, there were 4,156 assaults on prison staff, of which 579 were classed as serious. Serious assaults on staff rose by 32 per cent in 2014 to the highest number since recording practices began in 2003.

We have been here before. 26 years ago Strangeways prison in Manchester saw a riot take place that lasted 25 days, with prisoners demonstrating on the roofs of the prison. As a result the government commissioned Lord Woolf to conduct an inquiry. Last year, Woolf delivered a speech where he considered the prison system today and the prison system he had investigated 25 years before.
As he said: “There are things that are better now than then, but I fear we’ve allowed ourselves to go backwards and we’re back where we were at the time of Strangeways.

“For a time after the riot things were much better and numbers were going down, [but] unfortunately prisoners are again being kept in conditions that we should not tolerate.”


So what happens next? Michael Gove was appointed Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice in May 2015. So far he has taken a number of steps to reverse mistakes by his predecessor, Chris Grayling. He has reversed the ban on sending books to prisoners, which the Howard League campaigned against. He has abandoned plans to build a large children’s prison and scrapped the criminal courts charge – the result of another Howard League campaign.

Gove has also introduced a new rhetoric around prisons, punishment and rehabilitation. He has talked about prisoners being “placed in our care”. He has made clear that prison is a place where people are sent as a punishment not for further punishments. Gove also recently said:“Human beings whose lives have been reckoned so far in costs – to society, to the criminal justice system, to victims and to themselves – can become assets – citizens who can contribute and demonstrate the human capaicty for redemption”.

This is a far cry from the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” talk that politicians have all too often pandered to in the past. But the fact remains that the Ministry of Justice has cut prison staffing and resources. More cuts would appear to be planned. Michael Gove’s rhetoric for change is optimistic but the practicalities his reforms will face are huge. Unless the government decides to argue forcefully – in teeth of tabloid opinion – that prison numbers must come down, then it may be that the prison system will continue to be in crisis and that things may get a lot worse before they get any better.


Thinking on Sunday

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Andrew Neilson is Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform. He has led on a number of campaigns, including Books For Prisoners (which won a Charity Award 2015) and directed a number of inquiries for the charity, on topics including former armed service personnel in the criminal…