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Howard League blog · 29 Sep 2023

Letters from prison: Lifting the lid on a system in crisis

On 14 September 2023, our Chief Executive, Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.), gave a lecture at the City Law School in London about the letters we receive from our members and people in prison. Here is a full transcript of the speech:

I had a funny conversation recently with Ryan, an old friend – now colleague – who spent many years in prison. Ryan said that he had developed a sixth sense when it came to mail in prison. By the rhythm of the prison officer’s steps, he insisted that he could always tell whether he had mail – he would judge how fast the officer was walking down the landing when delivering the mail and knew with certainty whether and when letters would slide through his door. He basically claimed to be a prison post whisperer. I thought it was nonsense and put it out of my mind. And then I bumped into an old personal trainer, who – when I said I was giving a lecture about prison letters – quickly said, “you know I could always tell when I was going to get a letter”.

I think these instincts speak to two things. First, is the importance that prisoners place on receiving letters and news from the outside world – of the importance of connection – and second, that in understanding prison officer footstep trajectory, they were spending far too much time in their cells.

I too like letters, and when I took over as Chief Executive of the Howard League 22 months ago, it seemed to me that they would provide a window into understanding life behind prison walls. The Howard League has hundreds of members who are in prison, and our new strategy commits us to building both their numbers and the strength of their voice in our work.

So when, last summer, I was offered the opportunity to write a column for a year in Converse, a prison newspaper, I seized it. Since last September, I have had a monthly column, supported by our wonderful Noor Khan and other staff, about issues arising in our work, in politics and in the community. The new rules about moves to open conditions, education, racism in prison, transfers and family life, mental health, the politics of prison…and each column ended with an invitation to readers to get in touch and share their experiences. And I am delighted that they did in their hundreds. At the same time, our membership officer Tim Kerr, a medical doctor before he went to prison, also wrote a column on health in prison, which also elicited fantastic responses.

The letters we have received provide an invaluable snapshot into prison life. They have been an incredible resource in understanding the impact of policy changes and the realities of a system that is overpopulated and understaffed. They have helped in media interviews and in meetings with politicians – only today, I was referring to them in my meeting with the Prisons Minister Damian Hinds, when we were speaking about remand and IPP sentences.

I am going to speak to you about who has been in touch and what they shared about life in prison, and pull out some common themes. From the outset I should say that I am only going to speak in general terms. We have responded to all the letters we have received – trying as much as possible to meet the asks made of us – and have each time encouraged the person to join the Howard League, which many of them did. The people I quote by name have indicated that they are happy for their comments to be shared by us.

I received one letter from a man on remand for more than four years, for a non-violent offence for which he handed himself in.

Unfortunately, I have hundreds of letters to cover, so I am going to miss some of the key issues – I am sorry for that. I have decided instead to focus on key themes, and to share people’s own words as much as possible.

So, who has been in touch? Demographically, mostly men, which is to be expected given that this week we have 83,500 men in prison and 3,500 women. While they don’t always say, most seem to have been in their 30s to 50s, though there have also been teenagers and the eldest has recently gone to prison for the first time aged 88. There have been people awaiting trial on remand, and others who have been in prison for decades. Some write of having been in prison pretty much all their lives; others in care since childhood, who speak of being thoroughly institutionalised. And many are completely new to prison, having never had anything to do with the criminal justice system before.

The letters evidence not only the sheer number of people on remand, but the devastation of being held in custody awaiting trial. The uncertainty, the anxiety about what will happen at trial, missing their family, often knowing that they will be acquitted, but having to wait. I received one letter from a man on remand for more than four years, for a non-violent offence for which he handed himself in. Another has been waiting more than five years for trial, though his lawyer tells him, if convicted he’d probably get five years.

During this time, they don’t have access to courses or to progression, they are just stuck. And we know from the data, people on remand have the highest rates of suicide in the estate. Remand is one of the priorities of our new strategy.

There are lots of letters from people who are new to prison and appalled by what they see. One man who wrote last month is now in his 60s, and has landed in prison for the first time after years working in the City. He had, he said, always been part of the “hang ’em, flog ’em brigade”, and now sees the error of his ways. There are so many people, he writes – old people, sick people – who just shouldn’t be here. The rest of his letter was about the IPP sentence, of which I will speak later.

I’ve had lots of letters from people who have learned to read and write in prison and are now studying university degrees; a couple ask for feedback on their PhD proposals.

I have received letters from a good number of returned servicemen, who still suffer with PTSD and crave the company and support of other people who know what they’ve been through on the battlefield and then in readjusting to civilian, let alone prison, life. I have also received a lot of letters from people convicted of sexual offences, many of whom speak of extreme loneliness and a sense of abandonment, with no one on the outside to love and support them any more.

Many people note their struggles with literacy; a lot have only learned to read and write inside, and they apologise profusely for spelling errors. Most often these letters contain not a single spelling mistake. I’ve had lots of letters from people who have learned to read and write in prison and are now studying university degrees; a couple ask for feedback on their PhD proposals. These people are rightly proud of their educational progress, and will be applying for jobs at the Howard League when they are released.

With very few exceptions, the letters have been warm and kind and supportive of our work. What people have chosen to share has been interesting. Many refer to their index offence, often with deep regret for their victims. They write about their shame, of letting down their families, of letting themselves down.

Some, but over the year not very many, have protested their innocence and asked for support in connecting to lawyers and supporters for their appeal. Since Andy Malkinson was found innocent, there has been an uptick in the numbers of people highlighting their own struggle to be found as innocent, and the challenges of maintaining innocence while progressing through the prison system.

Far fewer than you might expect complain about their conviction or their sentence; though many write about the injustices they see that have affected others, particularly people serving an IPP sentence, people convicted of murder under joint enterprise and the plight of older people. Andrew works in reception at a prison and writes about an 85-year-old man who has gone in for the first time. Andrew notes the prison’s failure to make any adjustments for this man’s age, to allow him to sit in the garden or to talk to younger people. He’s aging quickly as a result.

A good number share a sense that while they were guilty of their crimes, they always felt like the odds were stacked against them. A lot write about early childhood trauma; of being abused, of developing problems with alcohol and drugs, exclusions from school and of poor emotional regulation. Of not knowing how to be a decent man. And women who didn’t know how to get away from men who were abusive and dragged them into crime. The letters reinforce my abiding view that most people in prison are just normal people who have taken bad decisions in bad circumstances, and many have never known good circumstances. They are any one of us in a different, difficult context.

Some write in disbelief that there are pregnant women in prison and worry that there won’t be help available when they go into labour.

A lot of people have shared their struggles with mental health, having only been diagnosed with serious conditions like bipolar disorder inside prison. Many more disclose that they have received a diagnosis of neurodiverse conditions, such as autism and ADHD. While they don’t make the connection, having read Clare Alleley’s excellent book on Autism Spectrum Disorders and the Criminal Justice System, some of their offending seems to me to be undoubtedly connected to these conditions, misunderstood as they are.

I have received a good number of letters from people who are gay and who struggle with bullying and abuse; similarly the letters from Black prisoners echoed the findings of the recent HM Inspectorate of Prisons thematic inspection report on the experiences of Black prisoners and staff – there is a race problem in many of our jails.

Most of the letters I’ve received from women have either been from women in prison on remand or sentenced to long sentences, having been caught up in crime through abusive partners. Some write in disbelief that there are pregnant women in prison and worry that there won’t be help available when they go into labour.

As to motivations to write, they vary, and some people have multiple reasons to write. Around a third of the letters have been asking for help. For legal advice and representation, and we have referred them on; others have asked us to send information about what’s happening in parliament on particular issues or material on penal reform. Some do so apologetically, because they have no one on the outside to send them anything.

More than half of the letters take our request for intelligence very seriously – sharing their experiences of prison, the good, the bad and the ugly, hoping to support reform. There is praise for particular prison officers and programmes, and often for wonderful NGOs supporting people in prison. The Shannon Trust particularly is adored, for its efforts to support literacy in prison.

We had one letter from a man who has recently beaten leukaemia, only to be diagnosed with lung cancer. He doesn’t think the prison knows what to do with him.

But very often the letters are catalogues of disappointments, of broken promises and failed delivery – a detailed list of the writers’ experience of educational provision across nine prisons; timelines of parole processes falling apart due to delayed reports and cancelled sessions; of the poverty of medical intervention for people with serious health problems. We had one letter from a man who has recently beaten leukaemia, only to be diagnosed with lung cancer. He doesn’t think the prison knows what to do with him.

Last autumn there was a surge of letters about Dominic Raab’s change to the test for moves to open prison – which saw many people who had been working hard for years to be moved from closed to open prisons, being approved by the Parole Board and then declined by the Secretary of State for Justice. It was a dreadful policy decision made in the name of public protection, when in fact open prisons provide an incredibly important transition for people who have been incarcerated for a long time to start feeling their way safely back into the community. The letters told of the despair, of thoughts of suicide, of having hope stripped away. One of my former students from Warren Hill and friend, Chris Banks, wrote a beautiful letter to his fellow lifers about his response to the news, which he is happy for me to share with you.

I am pleased to report that on his appointment, Alex Chalk effectively reversed the test, meaning people are progressing to open conditions and I am now receiving letters about how the mood has lifted in the lifer estate, though there are many people who were rejected by Raab at the time, who find themselves unfairly stuck in closed conditions.

I have been blown away by some of the initiatives undertaken by people in prison to support one another and to improve the system more broadly. For example, at Five Wells prison, Jade, Becks and others have set up the Art Therapy Project that provides artistic workshops for people with complex mental health issues, learning difficulties, challenging  behaviour problems and those who are generally not engaging with standard regime. Alongside learning the various skills and techniques required to produce different forms of art, the project provides a safe and relaxed environment for the individuals to develop essential life skills, find suitable support networks in hard times and to gain a better understanding of how to behave and progress to a brighter future. Having visited Five Wells, I can say that it also has the benefit of beautifying otherwise grim prison walls.

And I had a letter from Peaceful Solutions at Dartmoor prison. Ross and his friends became frustrated by the absence of rehabilitative measures in the prison, so decided to do something about it. They now have nine members who resolve conflicts within the prison, though restorative justice. This peer-led project, which has the support of the prison, was highlighted in recent Independent Monitoring Board reports for its outstanding contribution to the running of Dartmoor prison; I really look forward to visiting later this year.

In terms of initiative and application, one of the most extraordinary letters I have received was from a man from the high secure estate, who has devised a six-year course aimed at keeping people serving long sentences engaged in their own self-improvement and rehabilitation. People in prison can only access university courses when they are within six years of release, which means that for many people, they have decades of time to fill in before they can study. This man’s proposed course would first encourage study around the purpose of punishment and understanding the law and processes, and over the years, include modules requiring reflection on the drivers of criminal behaviour, emotional regulation, the impact of neurodiverse conditions and mental health on offending, with the final year involving loads of 10,000-word essays. It is detailed, thoughtful and, if successfully adopted, I expect would make a real difference to rehabilitation for people serving very long sentences.

And the rest of the letters are mostly of appreciation and thanks. Urging us to keep going. I have to say that in 17 years of international human rights work, I received maybe two or three thank-yous from clients. Which was fine, but on joining the Howard League, I receive a letter a day, at least, expressing gratitude to me and my colleagues and urging us to keep going. I could not be more grateful for the positive reinforcement.

I received an influx of letters from mothers of people in prison, who find themselves on the other side of the country and unable to visit children. A good number were from women in their 80s.

Throughout, we have been acutely aware that those people who write to us are self-selecting. Thanks to a report of Ofsted and HM Inspectorate of Prisons we know that more than half of people in prison struggle with literacy. Others are foreign nationals, for whom writing in English is difficult. I hadn’t expected for a published column to be accessible to these people, but have received letters from people who say that they can’t read or write English, but another person on the wing had read it to them, and is transcribing a response. My huge thanks to these scribes for their kindness and generosity of spirit. There are still just too many people who can’t access the column, and who will never be able to write back.  While we are exploring radio and WayOut TV as additional means of reaching people, there is no excuse for people who are literally captive not to be taught to read and write.

I am also conscious that a lot of people have written letters to me that I have simply not received, and lots of people have written expressing doubt that the prison would actually put the letter in the post. My apologies to these unknown people.

On the back of an early column on the right to family life I received an influx of letters from mothers of people in prison, who find themselves on the other side of the country and unable to visit children. A good number of these letters were from women in their 80s, with sons in their 50 and 60s who are in prison for the first time. As they were in the community and had provided phone numbers, I spent three consecutive Friday nights calling these mums to thank them for writing and to suggest ways and approaches to transfers.

Lots of people write saying that they are from the north of England, and they are in prison in Kent. And others from the south-east, who have loved ones in the same category of northern prisons. It makes no sense. Since then, the system has become so overcrowded that we have more people far from their loved ones than ever before.

The problem of distance is often most acute for the women who write. With only 12 women’s prisons, they are often held a very long way from home. I had one letter in the winter from a woman who had been on remand for five months, in a prison a six-hour drive from her family. As her husband was now looking after their small children, he couldn’t make such a long journey with any regularity. And her kids were too young to be able to benefit from an online call. She wanted to share her experience and noted that there were plenty of other women in the same situation.

IPP sentence

Key themes emerged from the letters we receive. The first is the ongoing disgrace of the IPP sentence – called by my late dear friend Simon Brown “the greatest single stain on the justice system”.

For those of you who are new to this work, the Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence was introduced in 2005, intended for serious crimes. Under the sentence, people were given a minimum term which had to be served in custody in full. At the end of the minimum term, they could only be released if the Parole Board was satisfied that they were safe to be released on licence. The licence can be terminated by the Parole Board once a person has been out for 10 years from their first release; but it is not automatic.

While it was conceived as likely to capture very few people, it was widely and inconsistently used, and given to some people who had not committed serious crimes at all. In 2012 it was abolished by the Coalition government in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, but its abolition was not applied retrospectively.

So, those people who had already been sentenced to and were serving an IPP sentence in prison stayed in prison, until they had served their minimum term and then applied to, and been released by, the Parole Board. Over the seven years of its existence 8,711 IPP sentences were imposed by the courts.

At the end of June this year, there were still 2,909 people in prison; 1,312 of them had never been released. There were another 3,156 people serving in the community, where they could be recalled any time, and 250 in secure hospitals.

Of the people who have never been released, only 23 are still serving their original tariff. Everyone else of the 1,312 is over tariff, some of them significantly by many, many years. I am in touch with the family of one man who was given a sentence of two years and seven months – he’s now been in prison for 18 years, never been released.  Another was given a two-year tariff, and is now 14 years in prison, never released. There are hundreds and hundreds of people in this position.

When we surveyed our members in prison for the issues that we should be working on, nearly every single response included that we needed to sort out the IPP sentence.

And it’s not just the fact that they have been serving such long sentences, it’s that there is no end in sight. No certainty, no hope. And the mental health impacts are devastating. We know that people serving the IPP sentence in prison but also in the community, with recall hanging over their heads, have high rates of self-harm and suicide. Their struggles are widely understood.

When, last year, we surveyed our members in prison for the issues that we should be working on, nearly every single response included that we needed to sort out the IPP sentence. And a good portion of people who have written to me – well over 70% – urge that we sort it out, observing the injustice and wanting it to end for the people they see struggling.

And I am extra-grateful for the letters I do receive from people on an IPP sentence – there are lots of them – for their courage and their candour. These letters tend to be simple in their key message – “thank you for not forgetting us”. They are often heartbreaking.

One of the saddest letters I received over the year was from a man saying that he had two reasons for writing. First, “thank you for all your work”; second, “I am afraid that I am going to have to give up my Howard League membership, because I intend to kill myself. I can’t continue on this sentence”. This obviously triggered our safeguarding procedures, and while I understand that he is okay, it shows the level of despair that the sentence wreaks. I have been inspired by the support that IPP people in prisons such as Risley provide to each other, and by the persistence of family members campaigning on their behalf. And I feel for prison governors and staff who are trying to keep these people safe and engaged in their future, when that future is unknown.

Earlier this year, the Justice Committee, chaired by Sir Bob Neill MP, published a damning report on the sentence, demanding the creation of an independent expert group to consider a resentencing exercise, which would offer at least certainty. The government has indicated that it will not pursue resentencing, though it is exploring reducing the licence period, meaning that fewer people would be recalled to prison each week.

One of our four new priorities in our 2023 to 2028 strategy is working with UNGRIPP and others to sort out the IPP mess. In my meeting with the Minister today, this consumed much of our discussion. I shared the experiences of the people who have written to us – the sense of loss of hope and feeling forgotten – and demanded action. He indicated that they will take action short of resentencing, and we will keep putting pressure on them. The good news is that there has never more attention paid to people serving the IPP sentence, and certainly there is greater support in Westminster than ever before.

I should also note that many of the letters about the IPP sentence also make reference to the fact that there are people in prison who have been serving even longer, on the back of the two-strike law, which was found unlawful even before the IPP was introduced. Like IPPs, these people need to convince the Parole Board that they should be released and sometimes fail to meet this test. I had one letter from a man convicted of two non-violent offences, the first sentenced to a three-year sentence, then a two-year tariff, as a two-striker, and he’s been in prison for 19 years. So, thanks to the letters, we are building that into our work on IPPs.

Joint enterprise

A second theme in the letters, and another priority for our work, are the people serving incredibly long sentences for murder, having been convicted as secondary parties for joint enterprise. It is a complicated legal doctrine with a messy history, but in short, these are people who have not directly killed anyone – and in some instances weren’t present or actively participating – who are convicted and sentenced as if they had held the knife or shot the gun. Like the IPP letters, these are often extraordinary. A man convicted at 18 to a 33-year stretch, having never left the car, not having any idea that his friends had a weapon. Very often the people who write are Black men; some of them note that they were involved in gangs, others were not.

The abiding theme of these letters is disbelief – they write that the whole way through their trial, they assumed that they’d be found not guilty, because they knew that they didn’t kill anyone; the jury knew who had done the killing, and so how could they get convicted and sentenced as if they had held the knife. Now there is not time tonight to go into the intricacies of legal arguments around parasitic accessorial liability, but while I accept that people who provide support or assistance to a serious crime should face consequences, to treat them as if they had committed the actual crime, and the dodgy, racially biased evidence that is often accepted to demonstrate that support, is anything but just.

Recently, I received letters from someone two years into a 38-year sentence, wondering what they are meant to do for the next 30 years, with university only available to someone six years from release.

I’ve also received letters from women caught up in joint enterprise, in the context of abusive relationships.  A teenage woman who was in a relationship with a violent man, who killed someone she doesn’t know, when she wasn’t there – and to his credit, he says she didn’t know anything about it – gets convicted of murder and sentenced to 17 years. I happened to find myself visiting the prison where this particular woman is serving last month, and the governor was kind enough to take me to visit her. She’s still in disbelief that she could ever have been convicted, despairing at how she will adjust to such a long time in prison and how her family deal with the stigma of having a murderer for a daughter.

Again, joint enterprise is one of our strategic priorities, and we are proud to be working with the incredible collection of campaigning family members at JENGbA to understand the data such as it exists and to campaign for more meaningful appeals for those incarcerated.

Beyond joint enterprise, a lot of people have written to us more broadly about very long sentences. Regularly, I received letters from someone two years into a 38-year sentence, wondering what they are meant to do for the next 30 years, with university only available to someone six years from release. Our strategic focus on sentencing has been warmly welcomed by people struggling to understand what is achieved by endless sentences, often decades longer than they would have been 20 years ago. The Howard League will be working over the coming five years to bring sense to sentencing, and combating the myth that longer sentences somehow provide justice.


A third theme of the letters is rehabilitation. Or the lack of it. The public imagine that prisons are places that engage prisoners in betterment, that they provide counselling and education and training to support them to return to the community in a pro-social, positive way. And while I am sure that this is the ambition of ministers, of everybody who works at the Ministry of Justice or in a prison, the letters reveal that this just doesn’t happen on the ground. There is a massive disconnect between the vision, and delivery, and the purpose of incarceration becomes very muddy indeed.

I have received letters describing great courses delivered by prisons and NGOs, and prison officers going the extra mile to support rehabilitation, but the majority of letters catalogue systemic failure. People want the opportunity to address their offending, to address mental health or addiction issues and to work towards a life beyond crime. But in very many of our prisons, people are locked in their cells for 22 or 23 hours a day, often for days on end. Some prisons have workshops and programmes, but they can only be accessed if there are enough staff to deliver them. And there is a staffing crisis across the estate.

Overcrowding affects everything. As one person wrote, “there is a lack of jobs for us, a lack of education and the food portions have become smaller”. Even clothing is limited: “There is not enough prison issue clothing available.”

Others explained how access to an offender manager has become increasingly difficult. They are not given the time to discuss resettlement and address risk factors.

One prisoner explained that he wanted prison to be like a marathon race, with those at the side of the road encouraging and cheering, handing out replenishments to help get through the struggle.

All of this is contributing to poor mental health. Many prisoners reported feelings of hopelessness, depression and a severe lack of motivation to become involved in what little the prison offers. A prisoner explained how “someone recently slit our communal pool table out of frustration, leaving us all to suffer”. And I have had several letters like this one. Anyone following the safety in custody stats knows that self-harm incidents have increased – now one every nine minutes. Suicides have increased, and assaults on both staff and inmates have risen. The Minister this afternoon observed that we are not at pre-pandemic levels of violence, though when I reminded him that very many people are locked in their cells alone most of the time, he sighed.

A lot of people share their anxieties about release, for which they feel wholly unprepared. Prisons are nearly entirely IT-free zones, certainly internet-free zones, and people write that they feel ill equipped to be released into a digital world. They also worry about employment, recognising the link between gainful employment and preventing reoffending, but feeling that they have atrophied in prison, rather than skilled up. One writes “give us the opportunities to find a job that we will enjoy, and train us to do it, and you won’t see us again”. Instead, people are warehoused, left to feel lonely and embittered behind bars with nothing to do; we’re good at punishment, not so good at rehabilitation and reintegration.

One prisoner explained that he wanted prison “to be like a marathon race, with those at the side of the road encouraging and cheering, handing out replenishments to help get through the struggle and wanted a celebration at the end in the form of recognition and a fresh start”. I suspect that this would result in a whole lot less reoffending than stigma and isolation.


The final theme from the letters is the current pressure of overcrowding and overuse of incarceration generally, which makes rehabilitation all the more difficult.

I have had men write to me about being ‘padded up’ with a cell mate after 20 years of living in a single cell, and the conflict and violence that comes with that. Another man described how he assaulted an officer, just to get sent to the segregation unit, because he was convinced that he’d be killed by his new cell mate.

The overcrowding puts extreme pressure on staff, and a lot of people have written to me expressing concern about staff morale and workloads. As one said “the staff are too busy to help me with my issues. The overcrowding affects staff mood and attitude as they are overworked”. Prisons filled to the brim don’t allow prison governors or officers the time and space to work with people to support rehabilitation. And just locking and unlocking cells all day, isn’t a dream job for anyone.

The truth is the prison system is overloaded and underfunded, as much of the media around Daniel Khalife’s escape highlighted. This is a system in crisis, one that is failing. And rather than have a serious, difficult conversation about when prison is appropriate and for how long, the government just ploughs on with plans to build more prisons and to pile more people into the ones we have.

Our prisons are failing to keep people safe, to treat people with dignity and to equip them for release as neighbours and friends.

Over the past few months there has been a lot of talk about the capacity of the prison system. How many prison places there are and need to be; what the operational capacity is (around 88,000) versus the certified normal accommodation, that is how many people the prison service says can be kept to a good and decent standard. That is currently 78,000, so we are nearly 10,000 spaces over what, by the government’s own measure, is a safe and decent system. I have spoken to prison governors who have been asked to find new places, create new cells, it’s all about finding the places. That is the focus. Talk of places, not talk of people. I find it disgusting.

Our prisons are failing to keep people safe, to treat people with dignity and to equip them for release as neighbours and friends. They are disrespectful places, where human rights have long ago been abandoned and where violations are so common that they become normalised. We are talking about the rights of people whose lives are nearly entirely controlled by the state, and who are living beyond the scrutiny of the press and the public. It’s a recipe of impunity, and it needs to be challenged.  And you can expect legal challenge from the Howard League in the months and years to come.

Beyond individual human rights, the fact that prisons don’t work to build safer societies is well known and yet there is no sense of urgency to change the approach. Instead the government has committed to building another 20,000 places in the next four years, responding to endless inflation. Which is another one of our strategic priorities supported by the letters.

Government is defaulting to ever longer sentences as the answer to crime. Over the last six weeks alone, we’ve heard proposals from government to double custodial sentences for shoplifting; introduce life sentences for immigration lawyers who defraud the immigration system; and to introduce whole-life terms for a wider range of offences.

It’s madness and it needs to stop. The government’s own evidence shows that prison doesn’t act as a general deterrent to crime, and the rates of people reoffending when they are released from prison demonstrate that it doesn’t keep the public safe. When we are piling people into crumbling buildings, locking them behind their doors for most of the hours of the day, denying them access to meaningful activity and the opportunity to be near family, and then releasing without housing, skills or employment, is it any wonder that they fall foul of the law and end back in prison? As much as prison is bad for prisoners; it’s also bad for victims of crime and every one one of us who wants to live in a safer society.

Andrea’s favourite letter of the year

I am going to end with my favourite letter of the year, which was scanned and sent to me when I was working from home over August. I had had a particularly miserable day struggling with finances and fundraising, and it was late when I finally opened the email. It was from a man called Mohammed, who was due to be released from the high security estate a few days after the letter was sent. Like so many I have received, it was a letter of thanks and appreciation for our efforts. But it was beautifully timed. I immediately wrote to him at the approved premises to which he said he would be released to, but it was returned to sender. If Mohammed ever sees this lecture – thank you brother. You really made my day.

My huge thanks to all the people who have taken the time to write to Tim and to me, who have joined the Howard League and want to support our work. It is an honour to receive such thoughtful, honest and generous letters from people in prison, please keep them coming. And if you are not a member of the Howard League, please do join and become part of a volunteer army for change.

A final thank you to all the people who provide love and support to people in prison. A lot of the letters I’ve received have paid tribute to your devotion and your persistence. There are loads of people in this room who every day are working with people in prison and in the community to address the kinds of struggles that I have relayed today, and I know that your efforts are a lifeline to people. You bring light to dark places and provide hope. And that could not be more important.

Thank you.


  • Richard Smith says:

    Above all people in prison need hope. A tiny chink of light at the end of for what is for many a very long tunnel. With that chink of light on the horizon they need to be supported and helped along the way. I’m not an expert on prisons but I don’t subscribe to the ‘shut the door and throw away the key’ group. Some of our prisons look to be terrible places and I know they are not meant to be luxury but the squalor, the overcrowding and the locking away in cells for hours on end surely isn’t right.

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