Skip Content

Howard League blog · 13 Dec 2023

The 2023 Howard League Lecture, held in memory of Lord Parmoor

Outgoing Prison Governors’ Association President Andrea Albutt gave this year’s Howard League Lecture, reflecting on government prison policy since 2010 and its impact on those living and working in jails.  

Andrea is currently President of the Prison Governors Association, a post she will soon step down from after eight years. Following six years as a military nurse, Andrea joined the Prison Service in 1990 as a prison officer. She worked through all promotion grades and has been a Governing Governor since 2003.  She has served as Governor of Low Newton prison, Swansea prison, Eastwood Park prison and Bristol prison. Andrea was elected on to the Prison Governors Association National Executive Committee in 2007, becoming Vice President in 2009.  She was elected President unopposed in October 2015 and again in 2017.  

The Howard League’s Parmoor Lecture is held annually in memory of Lord Parmoor, Milo Cripps, a supporter and major donor to the charity.  

This event was generously hosted by Akin Gump, and a recording of the lecture and Andrea’s transcript can be found below. 

A personal reflection on Government Prison Policy since 2010 and its impact on those living and working in jails.

My talk to you focuses on a prison system from 2010 to present day. I don’t want to sound political or be critical of a specific party, but unfortunately this period covers the tenure of the Conservative Party. Their policy of austerity 10 years ago, has left such a deep and lasting wound for prisons and other public services, that this period cannot be glossed over; we have yet to recover from such financial cuts. I want to show you how short-termism, party politics, constant changing of Secretaries of State and personal ministerial priorities have left a system feeling like a political football, with little evidence of sustained improvement and often a legacy of dire consequences for all who live and work in prisons. This is my honest reflection of a prison system over the last 13 years.  

I gave an address to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Penal Affairs in the Houses of Parliament in June of this year, cataloguing the disastrous impact government policy has had on the prison system since 2010. With the exception of one or two of the MPs in attendance and those in the public seats, it was not warmly received, in fact it was received with a bit of a stunned silence. I would have hoped that this group, who allegedly have a keen interest in the penal system, would have shown more interest and emotion. I won’t bore you with the suggestions put forward by them to make it better – they were so embarrassingly low level and nondescript that I felt utterly deflated – they had no idea of the reality of our situation. Sadly, I am of the firm belief that our political masters do not have a hunger to make our beleaguered service better, as we are not vote winners. The PGA is an apolitical organisation, as am I in the role of President. I listen to the rhetoric of other parties and unfortunately, the tough on crime mantra follows the same pattern. We are on our own to make a difference in what is the most challenging of times, regardless of who governs the country. 

In 2010, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, inherited a prison service not perfect by any means, but performance was good, stability was good and self-inflicted deaths, whilst never wanted, were low. Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders promised to end inefficiency and bureaucracy and make prisons places of hard work and training. Men and women would be expected to work a 40-hour week with money being deducted from these earnings to support victims’ groups. Access to illicit drugs would be addressed with tighter security and those in prison with drug addiction would be placed in drug recovery wings to address the scourge of the habit. This all sounded very promising, but initiatives like these require money and investment, both in infrastructure and people to deliver them. Mr Clarke was expected to make cuts due to the substantial reduction in the MoJ budget agreed with the Chancellor, so it was never going to be fully funded. Some money was forthcoming, but not enough to deliver such widespread change. Only a small number of prisons had workshop places which could accommodate prisoners working 40 hours a week. Most jails dabbled in these concepts but with little verve and commitment because it was almost an impossible task. This ministerial priority stopped when Mr Clarke was replaced by Chris Grayling.  

Research shows that a younger population and high churn increases instability in prisons. We all know the initial few weeks in prison are the riskiest with violence, self-harm, and suicide most likely to happen

In July 2011, Mr Clarke announced a competition strategy for nine existing prisons, eight of which were public sector. This process duly began, with the usual private companies and public sector deciding to bid for all prisons at significant cost to the public purse. Little did we know that this was the real start of the race to the bottom to achieve stringent cuts with far-reaching consequences for prisons.  

In 2012 Chris Grayling came into the Ministry with a clear agenda of reducing costs further whilst bringing in reform. His May 2013 Transforming Rehabilitation: A Strategy for Reform was very much built on through-the-gate services, ensuring there was consistency between custody and community. A laudable concept and one which was right. In simple terms this is how it translated into policy. The national probation service as we knew it would be disbanded. Those people serving 12 months or less would now get supervision on release through the private community rehabilitation companies. Resettlement prisons would be created and men and women in prison would be located or returned to these prisons and benefit from the through-the-gate services. The highest-risk offenders would continue to receive supervision from the much smaller national probation service. This policy was implemented with dangerous consequences for prisons and has since been fully reversed at a significant cost to the public purse. 

Research shows that a younger population and high churn increases instability in prisons. We all know the initial few weeks in prison are the riskiest with violence, self-harm, and suicide most likely to happen. Transferring between prisons has the same effect on individuals. In creating resettlement prisons, churn increased significantly and, as it included 18- to 21-year-olds, the age profile became younger within these establishments. 

Furthermore, due to supervision of previously unsupervised under-12-month-sentenced offenders, the level of recall to prison increased, creating a further churn previously not seen. In essence, a policy decision was implemented which contributed to the downward spiral of instability, although other factors came along which created the perfect storm.  

Prison competition came to a halt during Chris Grayling’s tenure. Public sector bids during this process showed that the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) believed they could run safe, secure, and decent prisons far more competitively, so competition was stopped. A policy decision was made to benchmark all public sector prisons, massively reducing cost per prisoner place with the savings being delivered virtually immediately, unlike contracted prisons whose savings tended to be at the back end of long contracts. A Sword of Damocles was waved over our heads, saying this is the only way forward to stave off privatisation and it must be done. This was very palatable to government, who needed to cut spending across the public sector. The much maligned – and justifiably so – prison benchmarking began; the race to the bottom was in full swing.  

The decision by Chris Grayling to compete facilities management was proven to be expensive and disastrous with the prison estate worsening due to unresponsive contractors and lack of funding. A crumbling estate became so dilapidated that large parts of it were unfit for human habitation but remained in use. To date, large parts of the prison estate remain squalid and incapable of providing an environment which is safe, decent and rehabilitative.  

Implementation of benchmarking from 2012 to 2017 led to demonstrable deterioration in outcomes, particularly safety. Numbers of front-line prison service operational staff were cut by 31 per cent between 2010 and 2017. There was no corresponding reduction in the prison population. To reduce excess staff at speed, a Voluntary Early Departure Scheme was implemented across all grades with significant take-up. This resulted in prisons losing thousands of years of experience and the associated destabilising effect that created. The recruitment tap was turned off; there would be no new staff employed. Rates of assaults in prisons increased by almost 150 per cent over this period, with assaults on staff increasing by over 250 per cent, self-harm incidents rising by 120 per cent and unplanned use of force more than doubling in that time. To this day, we have not recovered from this catastrophic reduction in funding and once again violence statistics are on an upward trajectory and heading towards the record breaking 2014-15 period which is incredibly worrying. 

I was utterly astonished to hear the current Secretary of State for Justice, at his party conference last month, state that government is looking at renting prison cells abroad – if this doesn’t demonstrate a system which is completely broken, I don’t know what does.

I was governor of HMP Bristol when we implemented austerity. My prison officer numbers were cut by 40, but the work they were required to do remained the same, the number of prisoners remained the same. It was not just officers on the landings which were reduced. Office functions which provide the administration for prisoners were reduced. Security and intelligence officers were reduced to name but a few – the whole system ground to a halt, causing frustrations for everyone living and working in prisons.  

At around this same time, we were introduced to Spice, this terrible synthetic drug which pervaded all our prisons, causing violence at a level never seen before, death and destruction. As we did not have the staff to manage such a thing, either from gathering intelligence through good staff/prisoner relationships and an ability to analyse it, or just having enough people to attend incidents, a divide grew between both groups. Staff became afraid, vulnerable prisoners became afraid and as people metaphorically withdrew, that vacuum was filled with bullish, strong prisoners, often from organised crime gangs, we were moving towards prisoners controlling the landings of our wings.  

Prison officers under law, cannot strike, but they can withdraw to a place of safety if they believe their life is under threat. We saw this happen increasingly, and in many cases, it was justified. Industrial relations were very tense across the estate. Bristol was the fourth prison I had governed, and I drew on every ounce of experience I had gained over 25 years in the service, and nothing I could do made a difference. I had no staff, I had no money, I had a prison which was a filthy, rat-infested Victorian slum, and a facilities management contract which was incapable of improving it. I was unable to get kit for prisoners and to this day, I am not sure why, when kit was ordered, it never turned up, or only 20 per cent of the order arrived; it was probably the quality of centralised procurement and contracts. This was the most stressful and soul-destroying period of my career as I watched my staff lose their confidence and prisoners’ utter sense of hopelessness. Colleagues across England and Wales felt the same, and those who were around then and still around now, suffer from a form of flashback, or PTSD, when the word ‘benchmarking’ is ever mentioned. 

At around this time a new strategy was implemented, called Fair and Sustainable. Its purpose was to streamline and flatten management structures, reduce the costs of pay by lowering starting salaries and the use of a job evaluation scheme to ensure fairness across pay structures and reduce equal pay claims. This, coupled with reform of pensions, made joining the prison service a far less attractive option, even if the recruitment tap was turned back on, which it was not for another two years. The legacy of this remains today. 

In May 2015 Michael Gove took up office. He was well known as a reformer whilst Secretary of State for Education, although his policies were divisive within that sector. Mr Gove wanted to test his academy schools model in prisons. Several establishments across England were identified and began testing autonomy. Mr Gove believed that prisons could become independent legal entities. Those working in prisons knew this could never be the case. As a national service, prisons rely on each other for operational stability and resilience. These pilots received some pump-priming money, but the rest of the prison estate continued with the austerity measures and levels of violence, suicide and self-harm continued to rise. When Mr Gove was replaced by Liz Truss, this ministerial priority stopped. 

Given the lack of connection between government departments, sentencing policy and public opinion, it is likely that 20,000 extra spaces will be insufficient.

Liz Truss took up office in July 2016. She was the first Secretary of State during the decade who accepted prisons were in crisis and argued for extra funding for the beleaguered service. In November 2016 Prison Safety and Reform was published. It moved away from autonomy to empowerment of governors, once again claiming to remove bureaucracy and inefficiency. (Ken Clarke promised the same in 2011 and Chris Grayling in 2013 and both failed miserably). This empowerment was seen as central to improving our prisons. We were now embarking on the reform agenda – 2,500 more prison officers were to be recruited, still far short of the 7,000 lost over the previous three years. Liz Truss decided to split operational delivery from policy. She confirmed that NOMS would be replaced by HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). As part of this change, the new executive agency was given full responsibility for all operations across prisons and probation, while the Ministry of Justice took the lead on commissioning services, policy development and setting standards. 

The Prison Safety and Reform programme was led and predominantly run by generalist civil servants from MoJ with little or no understanding of the very complex nature of prisons and their inhabitants. Like many wheels of bureaucracy, it was slow, cumbersome and unresponsive to the critical situation in prisons. It was a machine requiring information, information, and more information from an already extremely stretched prison system. The feeding of the machine was taking leadership teams in prison away from the job of keeping prisons safe and decent. The added frustration for governors was that nothing seemed to come back from the MoJ to improve their jails. Rather than feeling empowered, governors were feeling under more scrutiny than ever, assurance seemed to be increasing and they were still governing prisons whilst shackled by centralised bureaucracy.  

At this time MoJ moved to a functional model for delivering corporate services. This model groups specific specialisms or professions (e.g. finance, human resources) under a head of function. The function then works with business areas that require them to deliver their services. Governors and their teams working in prisons universally hate this model. They find the service provided, particularly around finance and HR is very poor, often with these professionals having little or no corporate knowledge of the complexities of prisons and their people. The risk remains with governors, but they struggle to manage it with such poor support. The frustration is palpable and there is an absolute refusal by government to change this unresponsive model. 

It did feel for a little while that the grown-ups had taken over Private Office with David Gauke and the award-winning podcaster Rory Stewart. Mr Gauke’s tenure from January 2018 to July 2019 seemed to promise a change in direction in sentencing. He made a very sensible speech in February 2019, talking about abolishing six-month sentences because they don’t work and probably do more harm than good – yahoo to that! Rory Stewart argued for a small amount of money to improve gate security and tested this in 10 prisons, which proved very successful and reduced drugs and violence in all of them over a 12-month period. As it was successful, further funding was approved for roll-out across all prisons. Where there is a will there is a way. I felt these two politicians had the will. Unfortunately, their refusal to support Boris Johnson and a no-deal Brexit ended in them having the whip removed and kicked out of the party.  What is interesting is that, in recent weeks, the announcements from Alex Chalk seem to mirror some of David Gauke’s February 2019 speech. Maybe if we had implemented some of this stuff back then, we would not be in the mess we are now? 

The women’s population continues to grow, but there is little in the way of contingency plans for when these prisons are full. Women are the most vulnerable cohort and to be locked out in police cells is very concerning.

In 2020 the A Smarter Approach to Sentencing White Paper was published by Robert Buckland, the then Justice Secretary. Without going into much of the detail, this paper would lead to more people in prison and more people in prison for longer, despite there being no evidence that longer sentences make any difference to public safety. The impact for prisons was more overcrowding, in an already stressed system, increasing the instability and safety concerns. I will talk about how this has panned out in the last year slightly later in this speech. 

For over two years the country and prisons were in the grip of Covid. Very little has been said about how governors and their teams managed the pandemic, but I am shouting at the top of my voice when I tell you they were magnificent and a lesson across the entire public sector in how to manage risk, keep people safe, and save lives. Predictions were that over 3,000 prisoners would die from the virus and government were urged by health experts to reduce the population by thousands to manage this risk. Government responded by implementing an early release scheme. It was so stringent and risk averse that in fact it released fewer than 30 prisoners. Governors and their teams were the hidden heroes of Covid and have never been given the public recognition they deserve for what they achieved. There were 159 prisoner deaths believed to be due to Covid, plus another 56 deaths due to other causes where Covid was present. Most of these deaths were in the second wave in winter 2020 to early 2021 when we had a more deadly transmissible variant and before vaccination coverage was widespread. Government, despite public health advice and the very closed environment of a prison, refused to give prison staff or prisoners priority for the vaccine. This decision was based on what public opinion would think, as opposed to what was the right thing to stop the spread of the virus within prisons and out into the wider community; after all, prison officers were moving daily between the two. A sinful decision, in my opinion.  

In 2021 Dominic Raab, Justice Secretary introduced another White Paper, Prisons Strategy. It all made sound, common sense and there was very little of the content which could be criticised other than it probably lacked ambition, but the implementation and delivery of the paper is/was compromised due to the crisis prisons currently face. 

As an organisation, HMPPS is dependent on the activity of other organisations including Police, Crown Prosecution Service and HM Courts & Tribunals Service; and the policies and objectives of the MoJ and Home Office to determine the demands on its services. HMPPS itself has little control over this demand.  

The government has known since 2020 that the prison population would rise exponentially in this decade. This is driven by a range of factors and government policy decisions including: an ongoing increase in the number of long sentences; the impact of continuing recruitment of more frontline police officers; changes to sentencing driving an increase in probation caseloads; and the increased demand for prison places and courts ramping up after the Covid lag. 

In response to this increase in demand, funding was secured at the 2021 Spending Review to deliver 20,000 extra prison places by the middle of the decade. As a result, the government is currently embarking on the most ambitious portfolio of prison building in over a century to ensure there are enough places to accommodate those sentenced by the courts. 

We are now in autumn of 2023. I just want to talk about where we are now and if you think it has been a success. 

Prisons are at the end of the road, where all other interventions have failed. This crisis is not of their making and there is only so much they can do without the government’s strategic intervention to reduce the prison population. 

I was utterly astonished to hear the current Secretary of State for Justice, at his party conference last month, state that government is looking at renting prison cells abroad – if this doesn’t demonstrate a system which is completely broken, I don’t know what does. To publicly state we’re unable to look after our convicted citizens in their own country is an admission of abject failure. The MoJ states that the facilities, regime, and rehabilitation must meet British standards. This is rather ironic considering a German court in early September refused to extradite a man accused of drug trafficking because of concerns about prison conditions in Britain. Forget the morals and ethics of this suggested policy, logistically, how do we maintain family ties? How do we deal with language barriers? How do we rehabilitate to return to a British community? How do we seek assurance that the care is equivalent? Will our Prison Rules apply to our citizens in these other jurisdictions? What will it cost the public purse? I doubt if it will be cheaper than keeping them at home. I am sure you can think of many other questions. The policy is so ridiculous and beyond the pale. It seems it is more about finding spaces, than making a difference to prisoners lives and risks, and protecting the public. It is a headline grabbing piece of nonsense requiring legislative changes, so not a short-term fix for our capacity crisis. I hope it will disappear into the annals of history, rather like the Rwanda policy and the barge in Portland harbour.  

The prison population has risen by approximately 6,500 in a year, currently sitting at around 88,000, at a cost of £46,500 per prisoner per year. This is the highest prison population we have ever had; what a record to break. MoJ projections are that the population will be reaching 106,000 this decade. These are mind-boggling numbers to take in – especially as, in March 2021, it stood at 78,000. We have a capacity build programme which is unable to keep up with demand, and we have planning permission for these large new behemoth prisons rejected for some sites. At best this means there will be a delay in building, whilst appeals are lodged; at worst, they will never be built and what does this mean for prison places? Once again, the Justice Secretary, at his party conference, peddled the well-used statement of increasing capacity and building 20,000 extra modern prison places, but failed to mention that none of our 150-year-old (and in some cases younger), outdated, crumbling, not-fit-for-purpose prisons will continue to be full, offering little benefit for those living in them.  

Recent history has shown that large government infrastructure announcements fail to materialise or deliver on the scale promised. There is a potential for the prison capacity building programme to be a further example of this. The three of the proposed sites which have failed to get planning permission equate to approximately 5,000 spaces; its not rocket science to see that it is cause for significant concern. Given the lack of connection between government departments, sentencing policy and public opinion, it is likely that 20,000 extra spaces will be insufficient.  

We are unable to recruit, develop and retain the staff we need to care for the current prisoner population. How on earth are we going to find the staff to open these new establishments when they get built, a number of which are in the rural shires, which are expensive areas of the country? We are fishing in the same pond as the police and Border Force, who offer a better and safer working environment with an improved development, pay and reward package. The offer from HMPPS to new prison officer recruits is a six-week residential training course, then out on to the wings carrying out what is possibly the most challenging role in the country. This is unacceptable, and governors are critical of the quality of some staff, and the fact they play no part in the recruitment process; they do not know who is going to walk through their gates until they see the whites of their eyes. 

The political rhetoric, rather than being tough on crime, has created a situation where further overcrowding will turn many of our prisons into little more than warehouses of despair, danger, and degradation, despite the best efforts of governors and their teams.

These double whammy crises have been the only show in town. We stumble through each week in the hope that accommodation from new prisons, opening of refurbished wings and rapid deployment units will save us for another couple of weeks. We sit with our fingers crossed, hoping we will have seasonal dips in population to survive another spike. We have a buffer zone of approximately 1,400 spaces to allow for unexpected accommodation issues, which is now used as business as usual; at the time of writing this speech, we have but a few hundred male adult spaces left and this figure includes cat D places, not easily accessed.  

The women’s population continues to grow, but there is little in the way of contingency plans for when these prisons are full. Women are the most vulnerable cohort and to be locked out in police cells is very concerning. 

Prisons under the cosh, where once we would have reduced the population to help stabilise them, are now being asked to reopen this accommodation to meet the demand. The health and safety of those living and working in these prisons is secondary to the need for spaces. Violence and self-harm are on an upward trajectory, as is the presence of drugs and their associated risks. It seems a forlorn hope to expect this pattern to change in the medium term, because, as we all know, prisons which are underfunded and full every day are not calm, safe or decent places, let alone rehabilitative; it could be argued that the current operational capacity of some prisons is already too high.  This is not how to run a vital public service. 

HMPPS’ coordinated response to overcrowding has been impressive and has to date prevented a complete collapse of the system. This does come at a cost, far too much focus is given to capacity management instead of system-wide improvements and outcomes for prisoners. HMPPS has no say in how many prisoners are sent to jails. Prisons are at the end of the road, where all other interventions have failed. This crisis is not of their making and there is only so much they can do without the government’s strategic intervention to reduce the prison population. 

Recently, Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons publicly stated that one in 10 of our prisons should be closed, particularly old crumbling Victorian prisons. If only that were a possibility, but it is not and probably will not be for many years. These unmaintained prisons, with decades of disinvestment will remain in use and will only crumble further, due to the demand for every single cell in England and Wales to be in use.  

Despite all this drama, HMPPS is expected to deliver £37million in savings during the spending review period through the One HMPPS change programme. There is absolutely no hope of any of this being re-invested in the frontline, which will have to continue delivering on a wing and a prayer.  

We are in a perfect storm scenario at present. Our prisons are full and the prison building programme cannot keep pace with the increase in the prison population.  

A rigorous process was carried out in 2022 and again this year to look at the maximum number of prisoners any establishment can hold to maintain safety, decency, order and control. This risk-assessed project was done by expert senior operational leaders within HMPPS, taking into consideration the uniqueness of each prison. This maximum number is called the operational capacity and when filled, a prison is full.  Currently most of our prisons are full, and we have been using police cells for the overflow, although this has recently been stepped down. Where there are spaces, it has been in the lower-category open prisons. A piece of work has been conducted to maximise the use of open prisons and these are now reaching their capacity, where once we would have risk-assessed prisoners to transfer to open conditions, we now give presumptive cat D. There is no more room at the inn. 

Sometimes out of a crisis or adversity there may be positives. The government has allowed our prisons to overcrowd and then some, and the knock-on negative impact this has had on safety and decency, but finally, they have had to react.

This dangerous situation is due to reactive government policy which has failed to ensure sufficient prison places for the demand they have created. The political rhetoric, rather than being tough on crime, has created a situation where further overcrowding will turn many of our prisons into little more than warehouses of despair, danger, and degradation, despite the best efforts of governors and their teams. There is potential for staff to go to a place of safety again due to their health and safety being compromised. The government is failing both the people prisons hold and the community they serve. 

The Fair and Sustainable workforce strategy I spoke about earlier, which reduced the pay and reward package for prison officers, has had a long-term impact on recruitment and retention. The dangerous working environment, coupled with this, means we are far from being an employer of choice. Whilst recent pay awards from the Pay Review Body have improved the package, we still struggle to recruit, despite a huge focus on this issue. The crisis in staffing, has led to a situation where large numbers are sent on detached duty (with potential for it to be compulsory) across the country to try and shore up prisons where shortfalls are even worse. We know that staff-prisoner relationships are critical to stability, but with such a transient staffing situation, this is compromised. Austere regimes are delivered across a significant proportion of the estate due to lack of staff numbers to safely unlock prisoners.  

So, in summary……… 

Prisons are a critical part of the criminal justice system. Their role in both punishment and rehabilitation needs to be effective in the overall aim of a system which reduces reoffending. 

Since 2010, 11 Justice Secretaries, (one holding the post twice) and 13 – apologies, as of a couple of weeks ago, it is now 14 – prisons ministers (one holding the post twice for one day) have, through political buffeting and interference, achieved nothing but decline in the function of prisons. The decision by government to impose eye-watering austerity on unprotected departments during the last decade resulted in a race to the bottom for many public services, from which prisons have yet to recover.  

MoJ statistics over these years document record-breaking rises in violence, suicide, and self-harm. Lack of investment in prison infrastructure has resulted in crumbling prisons, both Victorian and those of more recent construction. Slashing of the pay and reward package for prison staff and failure to implement in full recommendations from the Prison Service Pay Review Body has resulted in a recruitment and retention situation never seen before in the service. Whilst in recent months this is an improving picture, it is an ongoing gargantuan task encouraging people to join. This is all against a backdrop of an increase in the prison population.  

During this period, governments published various strategies for change. This yoyoing from one political priority to the next did nothing except destabilise prisons; none of these initiatives proved successful and, indeed, some were a catastrophic long-term failure still felt today, for prisons, public safety, and the public purse.  

In 2019, the populist rhetoric from the new government was a ‘tough on crime’ agenda. Twenty thousand more police officers to find criminals, and 20,000 more prison spaces in which to lock them up. In 2021 a further White Paper was published, the content of which is uncontroversial but not particularly ambitious. That said, even to deliver this paper, requires a functioning prison system.  

Notwithstanding a pandemic impacting on the criminal justice system, a policy of locking up more people for longer and making it more difficult to be released, requires a whole-system approach ensuring downstream can cope with such political decisions. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Prisons are full and there are not enough cells for the prison population.  

The dialogue and rhetoric on prisons must change. A brave government needs to look at alternatives to prison and educate society that being tough on crime is not always about putting more people in prison. It is about doing the right thing to safeguard our communities from crime. When people end up in prison, everything else has failed. Education, health, drug and alcohol services, social services, and many other interventions. Prison is now used to pick up the pieces of a failing society. Is the purpose of prison to educate the innumerate and illiterate? Is the purpose of prison to safeguard those with mental health issues? Is the purpose of prison to deal with drug and alcohol abuse? If it is, then we are not adequately funded for it and we are not very good at it. We have the same inspection criteria, of Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission, as those institutions which should be good at it, and this feels unfair. We are expected to be all things to everyone, but in fact fail to excel in most things.   

It often feels like a forgotten service, but its full of truly hidden heroes.  We know that those working in prisons deliver a vital role which requires a multitude of skills, carried out with a sense of pride and commitment, but it is tough. Governors and their staff do not get the recognition they deserve. 

And finally…….  

Sometimes out of a crisis or adversity there may be positives. 

The government has allowed our prisons to overcrowd and then some, and the knock-on negative impact this has had on safety and decency, but finally, they have had to react.  

Alex Chalk gave a speech to Parliament on 16 October and, whilst much of it was the same rhetoric I have heard many times over the years, there were some positives that stood out to me. I am sure these decisions were forced on government by their own policies which increased the prison population to breaking point and not ones they would readily choose to take. However, implementing the end of custody licence scheme in a limited number of prisons, increasing lengths of Home Detention Curfew for some prisoners, challenging the judiciary to look at alternatives to custody, and de-listing cases for a period, has given respite and a few hundred spaces. Not much, I know, and how long a reprieve it gives the service is probably into early Spring 2024.  

Those working in prisons know that there is very little they can do for short-term sentenced offenders and the same faces return to their local prison time and time again. Invariably we manage to stabilise them from drugs and alcohol and signpost them to whatever immediate intervention they require if available and little else. 

The standout announcement for me in his speech was this, 

He stated, 

“We will legislate for a presumption that custodial sentences of less than 12 months in prison will be suspended and offenders will be punished in the community instead…” 

If this comes to fruition, then I will go to my retirement on the 31 March next year, happy that a long-held view and mandate from the PGA has finally been realised. 

Thank you.  


  • Ian West says:

    Your words resonate with my own experiences & personal opinions over this period. Likewise is the same for many of ex colleagues.
    In addition, I believe that HMPPS has compounded poor decisions made by politicians i.e. diverting funding from vital front line services by expanding Regional offices, headquarters groups & the 150+ individual projects running in HMPPS.
    Voices like yours are too often heavily filtered or stopped by senior managers not working in prisons. I believe a cultural change is needed to encourage transparency and honesty and better performances of prisons. At the moment such honesty would ruin a career.
    Enjoy your very deserved retirement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Join the Howard League

    We are the world's oldest prison charity, bringing people together to advocate for change.

    Join us and make your voice heard
  • Support our work

    We safeguard our independence and do not accept any funding from government.

    Make a donation