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Justice and Fairness in Prisons · 27 Nov 2020

The pandemic offers the chance to reset policy in prison discipline

The Howard League’s latest briefing on our Justice and Fairness work looks at the 2019 figures for the use of additional days of imprisonment. But our findings also suggest the Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the case for change.

Official statistics provided by the Ministry of Justice reveal that the number of adjudications rose to more than 210,000 in 2019 – an increase of 76 per cent in eight years, despite the prison population remaining relatively constant. Although the number of adjudications rose in 2019, the total number of additional days imposed was lower than in 2018, when an all-time high of 380,169 was recorded.

To go alongside this downward turn in the use of additional days, the most recent quarterly figures from the Ministry of Justice suggest that the imposition of additional days fell by 96 per cent during onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which should prompt discussions about how policy could be reset and improved as policymakers look to move forward in 2021.

The Howard League continues to advocate for abolishing the imposition of additional days of imprisonment entirely, which totalled more than 337,000 in 2019. This would bring England and Wales in line with Scotland, where the practice was ended to positive effect almost 20 years ago.

As this coverage of the report in the Daily Telegraph reveals, the Howard League has encountered a host of troubling cases through its work, including teenagers who were punished for attempting to harm themselves and a young adult with learning difficulties who was ordered to spend longer in prison at a hearing where he did not have legal representation.

The briefing also highlights how the use of additional days of imprisonment and adjudications more generally highlight the key concerns of our Justice and Fairness programme. How can good order be achieved in prisons in a just and fair way without resorting unnecessarily to punitive disciplinary processes?

The Howard League’s legal team has represented teenagers punished for attempting to harm themselves

It shows how the overuse of adjudications has placed excessive strain on the prison system’s already-stretched resources, leading to inadequate investigations and inconsistent application of the procedures. The number of adjudications that were dismissed or not proceeded with more than doubled between 2011 and 2018, and the proportion of all adjudications which were found proved fell from 73 per cent in 2011 to 64 per cent in 2019.

The chaos arising from the overuse of adjudications often results in procedural rights being threatened and can lead to significant delays and arbitrary outcomes. Even where an adjudication is dismissed, the weeks and months spent waiting can have a profound impact on the prisoner concerned.

As soon as a prisoner has been formally reported for having broken a rule, they will often have privileges removed, frequently by the officer who is making the allegation, without any independent review of the strength of the charge. The sense of injustice triggered by this summary punishment can be compounded when, as often occurs, lost privileges are not restored when charges are dismissed. The loss of privileges can also adversely affect the outcome of future parole hearings, redoubling the unfairness of an ineffective disciplinary process.

The briefing reveals that racial discrimination is entrenched in the system. In 2019 Black, Asian and minority ethnic prisoners accounted for almost a third of all adjudications, while comprising just a quarter of the prison population.

Children and young adults are also affected disproportionately. Between 2011 and 2018 the largest increase in the number of adjudications was for children aged 15 to 17. Young adults aged 18 to 20 received 14 per cent of all the additional days of imprisonment that were imposed in 2019, despite making up just over 1 per cent of the prison population.

It would be neither just nor fair to allow this state of affairs to resume when prisons emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. The case for change is clear.


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