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The 3 Rs of Prison Reform

Some immediate and practical steps to get prison numbers down.

Our overcrowded prisons are not law-abiding places. Prisons are rivers of crime. We are throwing more and more individuals into these raging rivers of violence, of drugs, of frustration and mental distress, and somehow magically thinking that this will make them better people.

It does not. The river doesn’t steer these people to safe shores but sweeps them away into deeper currents and further and further into crime. Ultimately that means more people will be released from prison and go on to reoffend. More members of the public will become victims of crime.

What we need is immediate action to stem the flow of people into prison and support so that prison staff can then focus on working positively with those who remain behind bars.

Overcrowding and why it matters

The prison population of England and Wales has doubled in twenty years and the system now holds many more prisoners than it was designed to hold.

Overcrowding means around 20,000 prisoners are forced to share tiny cells in twos or threes. The prisoners will not know each other or what they have done. You can go to sleep one night with a cellmate in the other bunk and the next morning a complete stranger could be sleeping there.

Overcrowding means that prisoners are not placed in the prison most likely to help but instead where there is simply a bed that is available.

Overcrowding means that prisoners do not have sufficient access to purposeful activity such as work or education, or to visit healthcare or receive visits. More and more prisoners spend up to 23 out of 24 hours a day lying on their bunks doing nothing. The sheer boredom itself feeds and breeds the problems of violence and of drug abuse behind bars.

Meanwhile, the manifest needs of most prisoners are not being met. Poor mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, poor literacy and numeracy: these and other issues are more likely to be made worse rather than better by a spell inside.

Dangerous prisons

Despite the best efforts of those working in the system, prisons are sinking under a tide of violence, of rampant drug abuse and increasing evidence of mental distress among prisoners.

There were more alleged homicides in 2015 than in any other year on record. Assaults in prison rose by 31% in the twelve months to the end of September 2016. Assaults on staff rose by an even greater 40%.

It is not just violence against other people, however, but violence against the self. The rate of self-injury has more than doubled among male prisoners since 2010. The levels of suicide in prison are the highest since records began.

Across the board, things are not just getting worse but the rate of deterioration is getting worse.

If what was happening every day in prisons was happening in schools or hospitals – even just one school or hospital – there would be a public outcry.

The state of the prisons is now a national emergency.

What needs to be done: the 3 Rs

The government has announced plans to improve safety but unless it deals with overcrowding by reducing demand on the prisons then those plans will fail.

Bold sentencing reform to better match the use of prison to the resources available is required. There is no reason we cannot bring numbers down by a half and have a prison population of around 40,000 – the same size of prison population we saw in England and Wales when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

In the immediate future, however, we need to prevent more violence and more deaths. The Howard League will outline practical actions in three key areas, actions that can start to ease the pressure and set us on a journey to reduce prison numbers. We are campaigning for measures to address the 3 Rs:

Over the coming weeks we’ll be presenting more ideas for each of these areas and what you can do to help.

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