The prison population in England has risen by 74% in the last 30 years (from 45,000 to 78,000), and is projected to rise by a further 20,000 people by 2026.
Meanwhile, the prison service’s budget is 13% lower in real terms today than it was in 2010. The number of frontline operational prison staff (bands 3–5) was cut by 26% between 2010 and 2017. Despite recent recruitment, there are still 12% fewer staff than there were in 2010.
Sentences are growing in length. Almost three times as many people were sentenced to 10 years or more in 2019 than in 2008. People with mandatory life sentences are also spending more of their sentence in prison (17 years, up from 13 years in 2001).
Britain has never really worked out what its prisons are for: is their purpose to punish offenders, or to deter people from committing crimes, or to reassure the public that justice is being served? And how does that square with our simultaneous hope that prisoners will learn to reform their ways in jail, be rehabilitated, and never offend again? To make matters worse, many prisons nowadays are run by private companies, who have the additional and irreconcilable objective of making a profit. There have been many examples in recent years of terrible mismanagement and financial scandal at privately run prisons, with many prisons reducing their workforce in order to protect profits. This leads to poor prison conditions. And poor prison conditions increase the chances of reoffending. Reoffending in England and Wales costs the taxpayer up to £10 billion per year in police and court time, NHS and social care expenditure, and so on. The idea of privatising prisons in order to save the taxpayer money and deliver better outcomes for society has backfired badly.
In April 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into effect and introduced funding cuts to legal aid, meaning fewer people can access legal advice. In 2017, the Law Society reviewed the legal aid changes introduced under LASPO and found that legal aid is no longer available for many who need it, those eligible for legal aid find it hard to access, wide gaps in provision are not being addressed, and LASPO has had a negative impact on the state and society. The Equality and Human Rights Commission looked at the impacts of LASPO on people in Liverpool in 2018 and found that many participants reported significant financial deprivation as a result of trying but not being able to resolve their legal issues; some were unable to afford food, adequate housing or other essentials, while a lack of preventive legal help led to delays in resolution, and costs were passed to other parts of the public sector, including an increased reliance on welfare benefits as a result of unresolved employment issues.
In 2021, the government reversed the disastrous privatisation of the probation service that was introduced in 2014. These reforms separated the probation sector into a public sector organisation (the National Probation Service) managing high-risk criminals, and 21 private companies responsible for the supervision of 150,000 low- to medium-risk offenders. The reforms saw reoffending rates increase to 32%, and forced the government to bail out private providers by more than half a billion pounds. However, concerns remain about the structure and resourcing of the new nationalised probation service.
COVID has caused major disruption in the prison system. Since mid-March 2020 almost all people in prison in the UK have spent 23 hours or more out of every day locked in a small cell. People in prison have much higher rates of COVID-related hospitalisation and mortality than people in the community. The suspension of almost all Release on Temporary Licence, reduced contact with family and severely limited opportunities for employment, mean that people leaving prison during the pandemic have little opportunity to prepare for release, and face even bigger challenges than normal to rebuilding their lives.
Safety in prisons has deteriorated rapidly during the last eight years (although it has improved slightly during the pandemic). 408 people died in prison in the year to March 2021, 20% of which were self-inflicted; suicides are more than six times more likely in prison than in the general population. Recorded cases of self-harm are close to record levels, at the staggering level of 691 per 1,000 prisoners in 2020, meaning that a prisoner serving a ten-year sentence could expect on average to experience seven incidents of self-harm. Women account for a disproportionate number of self-harm incidents in prison, despite making up only 4% of the total prison population. While the recorded number of assaults has dropped by more than a third during the pandemic, they are still at about 300 per 1,000 prisoners per year (up from 200 in 2010). It is likely that many cases of assault are falsely reported by victims as self-harm, leading to an under-reporting of cases of assault. The total number of cases of self-harm is still likely to be under-reported despite this distortion.
The Centre for Social Justice has made the case for the introduction of a new custodial sentence, the Intensive Control and Rehabilitation Order, which would be served wholly in the community using electronic monitoring, curfew requirements and regular reviews before the court. The CSJ argues that “rather than being restricted to the rehabilitation courses available in any individual jail, this enables offenders to have access to the full range of interventions and programmes available in their local area… rather than surrounding the individual with countless other offenders, it enables them to be influenced by positive role models and family… and rather than solely being a burden on the taxpayer, in many circumstances it enables people to continue working during their sentences, and so to pay taxes themselves… in turn, this will allow prisons to focus their efforts much more intensively and constructively on those offenders who absolutely do need to be held behind bars topped with barbed wire… it will also mean we can truly put victims at the heart of the justice system – with stronger reparation during the sentence, and lower reoffending after it”. Reform also published proposals in 2020 for using technology to reduce reoffending. However, there is a debate around the effectiveness of technological approaches compared to more person-centred interventions.
The victim’s commissioner for England and Wales said in 2020 that rape had effectively been decriminalised, after convictions fell by 64% since 2016-7 to a record low. In the past five years, the attrition rate for rape cases has increased from 25% to 43%.
On 20 July 2021, the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland set out a reform vision for justice, in which he announced plans for a new prison white paper later this year with a stronger focus on rehabilitation, including trauma-based approaches for women, as well as plans to use technology to support prisoners’ wellbeing and widen access to education, and a new drug strategy to stop gangs from getting substances into prisons and to help repeat offenders to kick their habits for good.