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Howard League blog · 23 Aug 2018

If we want safer prisons, we must have fewer prisoners

I read two documents back-to-back this morning, which prompted this blog. The first was Rory Stewart’s article on Medium about reducing violence in prisons. The second was the newly released prison population projections from the Ministry of Justice.

Rory Stewart’s comments about getting a grip on prison safety are welcome and I support what he is trying to do. But his department’s own publication throws into sharp relief the futility of his efforts if they are not accompanied by a commensurate attempt to reduce the prison population.

The number of men, women and children in prison stood at 83,165 as of Friday 17 August 2018. The Ministry of Justice says that the population is projected to increase steadily by 3,200, reaching 86,400 people in March 2023.

This 2018 projection is much lower than last year’s – 2,800 lower for June 2019 and 2,400 lower for March 2022, to be precise. At face value this is a good news story but there are a few things that require a closer look. Here are the two projections side-by-side:

It is interesting that the slope of the blue line in this year’s projection is virtually the same as it was in last year’s projection. In other words, the big difference is where the projection is starting from, not in the trends it predicts around sentencing and release.

Another way of putting this: despite the dramatic, welcome and long overdue reduction in prison numbers since the start of the year, this projection does not assume that all of the drivers of this decrease will continue.

This is worrying. It speaks to a lack of concerted effort within the Ministry to pull the policy levers that would start to bring the population down in a systematic and sustained way.

Specifically, the Ministry of Justice predicts that improvements to how home detention curfew (HDC) is managed will continue – but that the phenomenon of the courts doing less business will reverse, while remands will stay flat. Worryingly, recalls are forecast to grow as prisoners serving IPP sentences are released – something that we know can have appalling consequences.

At the start of the year, the prison population was going down. It seemed that there were fewer people being pulled into the flow of the criminal justice system and into prison, as well as more effective ways of getting people out of prison. But for the fifth week in a row now, the prison population has gone up and these projections further suggest that the tide is turning. The government needs to take action now and that must involve legislative reform across sentencing, curbing recalls and abolishing short prison sentences.

Ominously, without such reform, sentence lengths and custody rates are projected to continue to increase, offsetting any small areas of respite or improvement. Over the past ten years, average sentence lengths across the board have increased by 24 per cent, and the trend continues. At one point under Margaret Thatcher the prison population was around 40,000. Now the debate is around whether it could hit 90,000.

The prisons minister’s suggestions for improving safety in prisons for staff and prisoners are good ones. I am impressed by his attempts to instil a new vision and get a grip on the worst performing prisons in the estate. I hope he stays in post long enough to see these changes through. But his efforts around training, security and culture will fail if they are not accompanied by a concerted attempt to get a grip on the prison population, namely by making a proper plan for how to bring it down.


  • Peter Rogers says:

    Prison should be a last resort for offenders, and not the first. Too often the courts act in a perfunctory way by sending offenders to prison without looking at the alternatives or the detrimental impact that prison might have upon the offender (and the tax payer).

    The purposes of prison is to punish and rehabilitate. There are many alternative ways of punishing someone, and it is widely known that prison does not offer any form of rehabilitation. We should only lock-up those who pose a danger if allowed to go free.

    Many prisoners have mental health problems that prisons do not have the capacity to address. If we had a more robust mental health system that could accommodate such people, then the prison population would reduce significantly overnight.

  • Chris says:

    It will only get worse unless there is a fundamental shift in the attitude towards law and order. Unfortunately we are seeing a creeping privatisation of the prison system which will, at best, massage the problem. Fortunately we have an independant judiciary so that’s where the reforms can best be tackled.

  • Marcus Collinson says:

    Government legislation is always based on short term knee jerk reaction for votes
    Gove appeared for the first time in years to grasp long term plan encompassing all aspects mental health housing rehabilitation etc
    Spain Holland Scandinavia re youth even Scotland re knife crime
    But NO back to tabloid soft sentence causing mayhem be tougher on crime sensationalism is back
    Long term rehabilitation saves money and lives we just need politicians with a spine to go for it but we havnt got any The cycle continues

  • Nora Mccormack says:

    Sometimes it’s down to police that people get locked needlessly my son who has been to prison before was stopped and arrested for possession of a cannabis cigarette not lit the police could have given on the spot fine but chose to arrest,detain over night send to court telling him he can be sentenced he had to have a solicitor, but fortunately the magistrate didn’t jail him but fined him £215 it just money making and needlessly put people in jail for trivial crimes and it is trivial

  • Maureen Rhea says:

    First offenders in particular should be given the option for education and/or skills training in order to help them back in to society. More investment in their futures is needed. Locking people up without trying to rehabilitate them means they will most likely re-offend. It’s enough that they have lost their freedom, not that their life chances are further reduced.

  • colin says:

    Maybe we should look at why people go to prison in the first place. Is that the best place for them to be?

  • Chris Johnson says:

    Prisons are not fit for purpose. I have known so many people that have died in prison (suicide & spice) … they destroy people rather than rehabilitate them.

    • Theresa says:

      I totally agree,Chris.I am sorry you have lost so many freinds relating to prison.It is so sad and i worry for the people who are just kept in well over half or more of there sentence even doubling!!or recalled cus the probation system has fell apart.dont know what to do!!,or have the staff or the time to support them on release,so it easy for them.My son has an IPP sentence and life behind bars is a day to day struggle,and its a worry for his family and freinds every minute of every day,and you have to be strong in character to do anytime,and get thru life inside.He is always moved so far away,and since being recalled,what with how prisons are right now,he has been back in 7 years,despite his 2 year sentence.Prisons are not nice places,and getting in any conflict or having a blow out or rant on the outside ,is life.!!!But in there its soul destroying as 1 mistake and ipps risk losing everthing,they work so hard for,hsve start again so to speak,and it is absolutely wrong that so much emphasis is used for reports at parole,its prison life for goodness sake. Especially, when they’ve had no life,outside in the world.Its inhumane to be in there from 17 to 30 yrs old.The anxiety,the sense of hopelessness and frustration .My beautiful son,does not want to wake up in the mornings, at his lowest,thankfully he is able to bounce back ,some can,im afraid , sink or swim.And i mean that with the deepest respect.Rehabilitation?? Not when you locked up, just year upon year of waiting for change ,,your parole,a dream of living a life again..All its acheiving is institutionalising men and women,and alot now have mental health problems too. thanks to this awful penal system of ours.

  • Tim says:

    Maybe every prison should have a safety cap or maximum. Once the limit is reached, the governor has the power to use his discretion to release the least dangerous of his prisoners until the number is back to a safe level.

    • Mrs J Dodd says:

      I have long held the opinion that Governors are closer to prisoners, can see and monitor their progress and would be in the best position to select an earlier release for prisoners, not just because of overcrowding but because they can see real change in the prisoner and the prisoner’s willingness to achieve change for themselves. There are many reporting systems on prisoners that could form the back bone for the decision and new ones could be introduced. I suspect however that many governors might not want the ultimate responsibility if they were to be held accountable for any future adverse actions of an early released prisoner.

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