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Howard League blog · 27 Jan 2017

Yesterday was a bad day, but there is some hope on the horizon

Yesterday was a bad day. The Ministry of Justice admitted that 119 people had died by suicide in prisons over the last year. The figures of self-injury and assaults also published yesterday revealed the chaos in the system.

It happens that I had a meeting with the Secretary of State, Liz Truss, on Wednesday to discuss how she hopes to deal with prisons. There’s some hope on the horizon and her plans to increase staff numbers, invest in workforce development and improve activities inside prisons are welcome.

I remain unconvinced that this is enough. The problem at the heart of the prison system is that there are too many prisoners. Too many people go into prison, and too many stay too long.

Two-and-a-half thousand new staff will not make up for the many thousands lost. As Labour found in the 1990s, even if you throw money at prisons, they fail if they are crowded and purposeless.

If we could stem this tide of people back into prison, it would ease some of the pressure.

No politician, when in power, has had the courage to deal with the numbers issue head-on. Even Michael Gove shied away from saying there were too many people in prison. But, maybe there are chinks of light, just maybe.

Whilst there is not to be a public or legislative programme to curb the courts and reform sentencing, I think small measures could at least ease the pressure on the system.

I was particularly struck by the fact that the conversation with the Secretary of State came back to the issue of people being recalled to prison several times. This is something the Howard League is focusing on. Too many people are recalled to prison for administrative reasons.

In the 12 months ending September 2016, 22,094 people were recalled to prison. Of those, 7,752 had served sentences of less than 12 months, and 464 were IPPs. One thousand, three hundred and sixty-one women were recalled, 695 of whom had served sentences of less than 12 months.

It is clear that, if we could stem this tide of people back into prison, it would ease some of the pressure. I think there is now recognition that recalls without good reason create injustice, trigger incidents of self-injury and cause overcrowding.

I welcome that the Secretary of State is looking at this; I just hope she can do something about it quickly.


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