Why Prisons are not Working 

The constant refrain from the Minister of Justice about there being ‘enough places’ to hold convicted prisoners is facile.

The fact is that with the equivalent of over 80% of the entire prison population being released each year unless the Government get a grip the “cost” of re-offending will far outweigh the “cost” of dealing with the situation.

And it is the “cost” that politicians constantly use to justify their incompetence in delivering the prison service.

The problem is that it is a “cost” that all too often politicians try to explain away in purely monetary terms almost as if they really think that by constantly talking about the high costs of maintaining the prison population it will make the public feel better

It is an argument that treats the public like idiots.

Any argument that is along the lines of “we must be doing a good job you only have to look at how much it is costing” is ludicrous and especially if you are having to keep spending huge amounts of taxpayers money because you didn’t get the job right in the first place.

Which is exactly what the current system is doing?

The data from the Office of National Statistics speaks for itself

Each year the numbers of prisoners sentenced to a ‘determinate’ that is those on fixed sentence being released are,

Those sentenced to less than 12 months – 39,000

Those sentences to serve between 1 and 4 years –  26,000.

Those sentenced to serve over 4 years – 9,200

Which is a total of 78,200 to which you have to add Life sentenced prisoners – 286

giving just over 74,000 prisoners being released every year

At a cost of £40k a year for each prisoner it amounts to an annual cost of almost £2.96b to the tax payer.

The failure of the system to break the cycle of criminal activity with re-offending rates of 58% within five years of release means that of those released every year over will end up back in prison at a cost of £1.7b a year

The cost of re-offending should not and cannot be explained only in the monetary terms.
It is the human cost and impact on the victims of crime that arguably should take on a greater importance.

If prisons as politicians would have us believe are really designed to protect the public surely it makes sense for their main aim to be to ‘Prevent the Next Victim’.

Which means there needs to to be a focus on preventing re-offending.

Even if all those who currently re-offend within five years of release only commit one offence – and there is evidence they commit multiple offences – leading them to receive another custodial sentence it means that the failing prison system is directly responsible for almost 43,000 victims

I was privileged to work with so many highly professional people in the prison service but I was also very conscious that they were operating in a system that politicians neither understood nor gave any indication that they wanted to understand.

Professionals working with prisoners in custody and I include prison officers, managers, education staff, catering, medical, probation and other contracted staff, are only too well aware of the limits of what they can do in a system whose main focus is on preventing escapes.

Which understandably is the focus because what is a prison for if it isn’t to keep those sentenced by the courts in custody?

It doesn’t quite apply however to the Category D estate where absconds are frequent

The one thing I am convinced of is that prisons don’t take awayan individual’s talents, but what they almost invariably do is suppress them.

It suppresses them in a prison regime that is so far removed from the ‘real world outside’ that when released what else is there for offenders to do but return to their former life

I recognise and will always support the need to sentence those who commit serious crimes or who are persistent offenders to a custodial sentence but they have to be sentences that are meaningful and purposeful not simply for retribution.

Imprisonment and depriving individuals of their liberty is the last resort of a civilised society

However if during the period of imprisonment individual talents are not encouraged and work done to correct the very issues that have led to their incarceration then why bother?

If we are only going to be committed to retribution and the institutionalisation of offenders in a system where being a ‘model prisoner’ is how the success of the system is to be measured then we shouldn’t be surprised they end up re-offending

Ex-servicemen will tell politicians of all parties that being an ‘exceptional’ member of the armed services does not prepare you for life afterwards.

It is perhaps why there are so many ex-servicemen in prison.

In the same and sadly very similar way being a ‘model prisoner’ does not prepare them for release and in the same way that there aren’t many jobs advertised for ex soldiers or sailors there certainly aren’t many jobs for ex ‘prisoners’ advertised – model or otherwise.

What is clear to anyone who has or works within the system it is that consecutive Ministers for Justice have been only to happy to promote the status quo of a failing prison system whilst publicly claiming that they are doing something to reform it.

The problem is no matter who or which Secretary of State responsible for prisons is actually in place – whether Conservative or Labour – I have never seen or heard anything from Shadow Secretary’s of State that give me any confidence that they would do anything to improve the situation.

At the end of this month it will be five years sInce I retired from being prison service senior manager implementing or at least trying to implement political decisions taken in Whitehall

They were decisions that failed to address the main problem with the system which makes the latest announcement by the Ministry of Justice on reforms of the prison system as facile as they are unachievable

The major doubt on how the prison system operates remains the same as during my time working in the system.

Quite simply prisons continue to fail to prevent reoffending?

Prisons by their very nature are complex places and as the type of prisoner and their offences have changed so it has become increasingly difficult for those who work in a system that doesn’t recognise or respond to the natures of the changes.

The major problem is that politicians of all parties continue to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of how the policies they propose are to be enacted which means they are invariably unachievable and undeliverable.

It seems to me that the whole purpose of the prison system should be  to make sure that when prisoners are released they will not go on to subject someone else to being a victim.

The problem is that prisons do not address the multiple issues prisoners have in a coherent and coordinated way and so is there any wonder they don’t prepare them for life outside.

In fact all prisons really do is ensure that ‘Prisoners’ comply with a heavily prescribed, inflexible and regulated the ‘Prison Regime’

In general terms – which may vary slightly across the prison estate – the Prison Regime starts at 0700 with the prisoners being unlocked to have a shower and breakfast before going to their place of work or allocated appointment.

A typical day being,

Monday to Thursday

0700 Unlock and breakfast

0830 Prisoners to designated place of work.

1145 Prisoners return to accommodation for lunch

1200 Prisoners lunch

1230 Prisoners locked up for staff to have lunch

1330 Prisoner unlock

1345 Prisoners to designated place of work

1645 Prisoners to accommodation for evening meal

1700 Prisoners evening meal
1730 Prisoners locked up for staff to tea

1830 Prisoners unlocked for evening association

2030 Prisoners locked up overnight
On Friday prisoners’ finish work at lunch time and stay on their accommodation in the afternoon.

Saturday and Sunday is a reduced regime where unless prisoners go to the gym or church they stay on their accommodation.

Is this really preparation for working in what to the majority of the population of the United Kingdom is our ‘normal society’?

Of course it isn’t, but providing prisoners comply with the regime they are regarded as ‘model prisoners ’.

The problem with the standard prison regime is that from Day 1 in custody all of those who work with prisoners want ‘their bit’ of the individual prisoner at a time that suits and meets the needs of the regime not the prisoner.

It isn’t the fault of those working in the system because they to are hamstrung being compelled to compete for the prisoners time by the regime and nonsensical targets set by the Ministry of Justice.

The problem is the majority of prisoners have multiple issues amongst which may be, drugs and/or alcohol abuse, behavioural, psychological, physical and educational needs.
These are all in addition to the issues that are related to the criminal activities and offences that led them to being given a custodial sentence.

In my experience the current system of the current piecemeal approach of trying to resolve all of the issues at once is counterproductive and prevents any of them being satisfactorily achieved.

It is typical for a prisoner to find that they have a medical appointment or an interview with a probation officer or have to attend a mandatory drug rehabilitation course at the same time as they have an education lesson and so have to leave their designated place of work to attend it

It is not uncommon for a prisoner who is half way through a vocational or education course to be put on a six-week ‘cognitive thinking offender management’ course without any thought of the impact on either the prisoner.

The impact on other service providers who also have targets to meet is not taken into account in the ‘contest’ between the different departments to reach their annual targets or face censure.

What of the prisoners in the system – well in practical terms they are just a pawn in the game who is expected to go where he/she is told.

It is a ludicrous system that not only disrupts the progress of prisoner rehabilitation it in fact prevents it.

It also leads to conflict between the service providers that are used by prisoners to their advantage.

They are issues that all service providers recognise as being ineffective but which because of the need to satisfy their political masters have to go along with and try to make it work as best they can.

The problem that everyone within the system recognises is that whilst prisoners have on-going medical and psychological issues it is impossible for them to have their other issues resolved.

If the Ministry of Justice is serious about addressing re-offending and Preventing the Next Victim they need to not only prioritize the services to prisoners but at what level services to individual prisoners will be provided.

It doesn’t make sense to provide prisoners who are going to be ‘deported’ at the end of their sentence with the same access to education, vocational services and training as someone who will be released into the UK society?

The reality is that prisoners shouldn’t be treated as if their needs are the same in a ‘one size fits all’ regime, but rather provided with services to meet their individual needs and those of the wider society.

I would argue that sentences should be divided into two phases.

The first phase to address the health, behavioural, psychological and related issues that has led to them offending and the second phase to prepare them for release.

I suggest that in the first six months of their custodial sentence prisoners need to undergo a full and comprehensive assessment of their individual needs and should be required to address their health and offending behaviour issues before accessing other rehabilitation services.

The second phase being rehabilitation would be to provide purposeful and meaningful education, vocational training and employment in a real life situation.

Essentially the regime has to change with prisoners in phase two working a 37 hour week with recreation such as the gym being available only in the evening and at weekends.

I would argue that the current targets should be abolished and replaced by an assessment of the effectiveness of the prison service in preventing re-offending, tracking prisoners progress not only during their time in custody but for five years after release.

Under the current system the service providers, because of the need to meet targets and in spite of their best efforts end up failing to provide services to meet the individual needs of the prisoners.

It is a waste of finite and limited resources which should be targeted to those prisoners where it will have the greatest impact.

Reducing the re-offending rate by 10% would reduce the prison population by 4200 saving £168m a year.

I know people will say “but surely the places will be taken up by new offenders” – and they are correct – but working with ‘first timers’ to prevent re-offending is easier than working with those who are already serial offenders.

What is important is to focus on reducing re-offending and preventing the next victim.

Using prisons for their primary purpose of “Keeping in custody those committed by the courts” and ensuring prison sentences protect the public both during and after release

Observations and suggestions on how this might be achieved are the subject of future blogs.