Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Whither Prison Reform - Part 1

I begin with the proposition that "prison doesn't work". This obviously presupposes the purpose of prison – a debate in its own right. However, in terms of reoffending and cost, prison fails. No other enterprise in human history with a 60% failure rate would be allowed to continue unchallenged, yet we appear to be singularly content with this monstrous rate of reoffending. And footing the bill for that perpetual failure.

Firstly, we should squarely address the issue of who we imprison, and for what crimes. Only then does the utility and cost of imprisonment become stark. In this Part, I will highlight Remand and Women prisoners.

Remand Prisoners. Over 48,000 people are remanded into custody awaiting trial each year. At any given moment, there are around 12,000 Remands (14% of the prison population).

A full 60% of these people are remanded to prison having being charged with non violent crime. Ten percent are outright acquitted, and a further 15% (15,000 people a year) are convicted but given a non-custodial punishment.

With the average annual cost of detaining a prisoner being around £40k, that we are remanding into prison so many people charged with non violent crimes must be questioned.

And where do we keep these Remand prisoners in the gulag? The uninitiated may not appreciate the varied nature of prisons, with categories going from Category A – High Security – to Category D, Open prisons. It is a matter of historical practice that the Prison Service places all Remands into Category B prisons – meant to hold people who pose such a risk that their "escape must be made very difficult". And Cat Bs are extremely secure, with escapes being rare.

But why place all Remands in such secure prisons? Because there is a direct correlation between security category and cost. Cat A prisons are the most expensive, Cat D the cheapest. Why place Remands, most of whom have comitted a non violent crime, into such a secure and expensive environment as Category B prisons? A quarter of a century ago, the Woolf Report made the recommendation that the default security Category for Remands should be Category C. Cat C prisons cost a significant amount less to run.

The Prison Service has ignored the Woolf recommendation, trampled over common sense, and continues to imprison those charged with non violent crimes in extremely expensive and secure facilities. If Remands were made default Category C, then tens of millions of pounds would be saved. The waste of the 25 years since Woolf must run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Women prisoners are another anomaly, making up some 5% of the prison population (just shy of 4,000). It is truly remarkable to note that fully 82% of women prisoners are imprisoned for non-violent crimes. Nearly half of them are sentenced for theft or handling stolen goods.

It must be asked, why are we throwing non-violent women into expensive and secure prisons? If the Corston Report were ever implemented, the reality is that the number of women prisoners could be reduced by some 80 or 90% - with a resulting saving of  tens of millions.

In this first part of a series of posts I have made propositions which will save many many millions of pounds. In changing the structure of how Remand and Women prisoners are dealt with, whole prisons can be emptied, the social harms of imprisonment reduced, and the cost of the prison estate significantly reduced.

Thoughts please....


  1. It's going to be very interesting to see if Gove and by extension the Tory party actually does implement the numerous recommendations god knows how many people have made over the years about the efficacy of imprisoning so many people. I suspect they won't as they will be too scared of being known as the government too soft on crime which they inevitably will be when someone not imprisoned does something heinous which they wouldn't have been able to if imprisoned. But they have to start further back in the food chain than prison and make the CPS and the judiciary less inclined to insist on imprisonment over anything else. My thought would be that if they remand anyone who isn't a proven flight risk and haven't tried everything else first then they should be made to stump up the cost of the remand. Likewise if they sentence someone who is say a first time non violent offender to prison on a long sentence when other avenues are available such as drug rehabilitation or community sentence that they also should be made to meet the cost of imprisonment out of their own pockets. Watch the number of people imprisoned drop instantaneously! It will also mean having to fund better community service provision than the govt currently provides

  2. Same old stuff you've posted before Ben. Nothing new.

    I'm not saying I don't disagree with you but you keep regurgitating the same old points in your Youtube videos and your articles about the failure of the system.

  3. I am a pensioner who had no contact with the CJS until I was about 70, when I discovered I had a relative in prison. Imediately after this discovery I was in hospital with pneumonia a highly elevated temperature and a bit deleterious unable to form sentences that made sense. Lying in bed I resolved to give her all of the help that I could.

    I started studying the criminal justice system on the Internet. I was looking for ways to help, but the only advice was to be supportive. My research showed me how inefficient our penal system is, when I was a boy in the 50's the prison population was about 20,000 including 1,500 homosexuals who were expected to change to heterosexuals in an all male environment. Now there are ten times as many, I include people on tag, and people on licence who can be recalled to prison without a judicial process. Other Northern European countries have prison populations similar to the UK's in the 1950's, Sweden has recently shut 5 prisons, Holland 8 whilst we are building a new Titon at Wrexham to hold another 1,500, the only conclusion I can reach is something is very wrong with our system.

    Nearly two years later my mentee is nearing her release. I have discovered that probation is part of the problem. I am sure that some of them do some good work, but our re-offending within 1 year rate is over 50%, where our Northern European neighbours are below 20%. If they are supposed to be protecting the public the numbers say they could do a much better job.

    Where I was deluging her with letters, I am now posting job adverts and application forms. She says its too early to start applying, but she has started on her CV. Again a lack of advice on what I should be doing.

    My reason for writing to you was for advice. I feel the need to be pro-social and help people leaving prison. I am not going to get the CJS changed or improve the probation service. My initial thought was to write a database system for the charities doing through the gate, accessible over a virtual private network by a mentor with a tablet, the data from which could feed Justice Stats so that they could find out what worked. I don't even know if such a system is required and since I believe that the pathways they have chosen do not measure some relevant parameters I am skeptical of its usefulness.

    My later thoughts were to set up a web site forum to gather information that was helpful to friends and families and ex residents of her majesty. To put all this information into a knowledge base which could be queried like a google search.

    Your ideas would be welcomed.

    The parameter that I don't think is being measured is 'maturity'. I have a summer home in a fishing harbour in Newfoundland. I have notice how a skinny 16 year old school boy, changes to a well muscled 17 year old with the mentality of a 25 year old in just a year of working on a fishing boat. Being in the constant company of older no nonsense, hard working family men and an element of danger. In the 60's we used to send youths on outward bound courses. Rock climbing, canoeing an element of danger no nonsense instructors, and it worked. Unfortunately the press reported it as holidays at the public expense. I was fortunate and had some inspirational teachers, so maybe it could be just the role model and the time spent in his company. The attributes of the mentor and his effectiveness are possibly how we can measure maturity.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.