The need for a whole system approach in prison reform

September 2, 2016

Professor Martina Feilzer, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice in the School of Social Sciences at Bangor University, looks at the challenges that lie ahead for the sweeping prison reforms announced in last May’s Queen’s Speech, and what the new Justice Secretary can do to tackle many of the pressing issues that persist.

It seems a long time ago now but in May 2016, the Government announced plans for a Prison and Courts Reform Bill “to give individuals a second chance.” In the proclaimed “biggest reform since Victorian times,” the Government aims to change prisons from being “warehouses for criminals” to ‘incubators of changed and reformed lives.” In the aftermath of the EU referendum this may seem an insignificant detail now but the latest release of statistics on Safety in Custody highlighting record levels of deaths, self-harm, and assaults in custody, and a serious assault on a prison governor in Wayland Prison in August 2016 remind us of the urgency of prison reform. The new Justice Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, visited two prisons on her first day in office indicating that she recognises the importance of this element of the criminal justice system but beyond that her thoughts on the reform plans proposed by her predecessor are unknown. Below are some thoughts on the proposals which may be useful food for thought.

In the context of an almost permanent prison crisis since the mid-1990s, which has seen the prison population increase to 85,300 in June 2016, an increase of more than 40,000 since 1993, this seems like a long overdue reform commitment and one that should be widely welcomed. The last few years have seen increases in levels of prison violence, self-harm, and suicides. In 2014, the then Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, concluded that “…the conjuncture of resource, population and policy pressures…in the second half of 2013/14 and in adult male prisons, was a very significant factor in the rapid deterioration in safety…” Educational, therapeutic, and other work has been curtailed in prisons as a result of staffing and budget cuts, met by increasing levels of overcrowding and the use of short custodial sentences. The answer to these crises apparently is reform prisons which are meant to be “driving a revolution in education, training, healthcare and security for prisoners,” as stated in the Queen’s Speech.

So, are the reforms set out the silver lining long fought for by prison campaigners? The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust – two organisations fighting publicly and, in some parts, successfully for prison reform, broadly welcomed the proposals but pointed to the priority need to “tackle prison numbers.”

There are a number of frequently repeated criticisms of prisons and levels of imprisonment. Prisons are overcrowded and too many prisoners serve short custodial sentences often for property crimes, not allowing much time for educational or rehabilitative activities. Prisoners are getting older; currently about 19% of prisoners are over 50, and that proportion is believed to increase, putting pressure on healthcare in prisons. The use of IPPs, Indeterminate Prison sentences for Public Protection has put pressure on prison numbers and has affected levels of self-harm. Recent statistics suggest that IPP prisoners have significantly higher rates of self-harm than those serving determinate sentences of life sentences. Moreover, research has clearly identified that those serving prison sentences have significant mental health needs and substance misuse problems as well as having experienced educational and economic exclusion prior to imprisonment

The current prisoner number of 85,000 is predicted to increase to 90,000 by 2020. Prison numbers are a result of various factors, a few mentioned already – more people are sentenced to imprisonment than in the 1990s, both in terms of the volume of people sentenced and the proportion sentenced to imprisonment, prison sentences have increased in length, the number of indeterminate prison sentences, and more prisoners have been recalled to prison. Some of these increases are the results of changes in the nature and types of crime committed by offenders, but changes to sentencing policy, sentencing guidelines, and legislative changes have been blamed for most of the increase.

Prison Population

Prisons are the last stage in a long and complex criminal justice process. Any serious reform of the prison system needs to consider what happens across the whole process and the various stages before offenders are sentenced to imprisonment. This includes everything from legislation, policing, prosecution, to probation services providing support for offenders on community sentences and those released from prisons. There are significant pressures on the criminal justice system and its constituent parts. For example, police services have called for a review of responses to mental health emergencies, as estimates suggest that incidents linked to mental health make up 15-20% of police demand. A proportion of such incidents will involve criminal activities and people with mental health problems will filter through the criminal justice system into prisons. A clear question arises whether this is a constructive response to mental health problems and an appropriate use of criminal justice resources.

Another significant concern in criminal justice is the recent organisational restructuring of probation services. One part of probation has been effectively privatised and is run as Community Rehabilitation Companies responsible for low to medium risk offenders. The National Probation Service is now part of the civil service. Probation services play a vital role in offering offenders support to desist from crime, both through the management of community sentences which aim to provide an effective alternative to imprisonment and reduce re-offending rates as well as support on release from prison aimed at avoiding recalls to prison and re-offending. In particular, for short custodial sentences (under 12 months) the revolving door of imprisonment is a grave concern and effective support to offenders is essential in reducing re-offending levels. The recent upheaval in probation has caused concern for the effective and positive management of offenders and the effect on desistance processes.

It is tempting to look at prisons in crisis and to respond with reforms at the prison level. And of course, there are plenty of improvements required. However, to address the prison crisis effectively, it is essential to look at the system as a whole to understand how we have arrived at a situation where prisons have become “warehouses for criminals” as well as warehouses for the poorest, those with mental health and substance misuse problems, and those at the margins of society.

The appointment of a new Justice Secretary may allow for such a whole system approach.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.