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How to tackle the prisons crisis

24 February 2017

Martin Wright urges the Justice Secretary to take a more effective approach


Tough talk: the Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, is escorted around HMP Brixton by the Prison Governor, David Bamford, last November

Tough talk: the Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, is escorted around HMP Brixton by the Prison Governor, David Bamford, last November

THE prison system is in a state of crisis.

In December, HM Prison Birming­ham experienced the worst prison riot since Strangeways in 1990, while the previous month un­­rest broke out at Bedford Prison. Self-harm and suicides in prison are on the rise, and chief inspectors of prisons repeatedly warn of unac­cept­able conditions: nearly 40 per cent of young adult inmates spend less than ten hours a day out of their cells, and fewer than half of prisons provide adequate “purposeful activ­ity”. Boredom encourages endemic drug use, as the BBC’s Panorama showed last week.

The Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, says that the forthcoming Prison and Courts Bill makes reforming offenders “a key purpose of prison”. But she rejects significant senten­cing cuts as a “quick fix”, and justi­fies current levels. At present, sen­tenc­ing guidelines are arbitrary and excessive: while they symbolise the seriousness of each offence, they bear no relation to what is needed to make the offender less likely to com­mit another crime.

A previous Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, has called for a review of the sentencing policies of the 1990s to 2000s which “accidentally doubled the prison population”; and, with Nick Clegg and a former Labour Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, he calls for a halving of prisoner numbers to about 45,000 — the level under Margaret Thatcher.


SIMPLY to lock up more criminals for longer is no answer to crime. Politicians habitually try to “do something” by increasing maximum sentences rather than by increasing the probability of being caught, which is the sine qua non of effect­ive deterrence.

The first remedy is outside the criminal justice system: to take pre­cautions to prevent crime. Chil­dren in school should be taught restorat­ive principles: the reason for not harm­­ing another person or the com­munity is that it would hurt them, not that you might face punishment if you were caught.

Within prisons, the most urgent priority is to address the crisis in education. Ann Widdecombe, a former Tory prisons minister and not a noted softie, has recognised what everyone in the system has long known: up to 75 per cent of those who enter prison are illiterate, innumerate, or without qualifica­tions. Substantial numbers in their childhood were taken into care, ex­­perienced abuse, or observed vio­lence in the home. Many have mental-health problems, probably aggravated by imprisonment. All of these affect women more than men.

Clearly, a full remedial pro­gramme — especially PSHE (per­sonal, social, and health education) — is urgently needed; but it is logis­tically impossible to provide more than a fraction of it in over­crowded, understaffed institu­tions.

Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary from 2012 to 2015, closed 18 prisons, and cut staff in publicly run prisons by more than a quarter. This left 6335 fewer staff looking after 450 more people.

Recent disturbances and adverse inspection reports have forced Ms Truss to try to recruit 2500 more prison officers by 2018, but this makes up less than half of the gap.

Mr Grayling’s prison closures would have been welcomed had some of the money saved been trans­ferred to the probation service to provide education and training in the community without the dam­aging effects of imprisonment. In­­stead, he privatised and fragmented most of the probation service, and commissioned a 2106-place prison at Wrexham costing £212 million.

Larger prisons are inherently more difficult to run, and inevitably further from the homes of many prisoners, although family contact
is important to rehabilitation: prisoners who received no family visits are 21 per cent more likely to reoffend.


TO BE a hard-headed and effective reformer, Ms Truss’s first imperat­ive must be to do no harm: primum non nocere. As few people as pos­sible should be uprooted from their family, if they have one; as few children as possible should be left fatherless or motherless (some 200,000 children in England and Wales have a parent in prison). Lock­­ing up too many people for too long is a waste of money, as well as lives.

Second, cuts across the board make no sense; part of the savings from prison closures should be earmarked for the non-custodial programmes (including mental-health ones, as she recognises) that make them possible.

What many victims want is not mere “toughness” but action mak­ing others less likely to be victim­ised. This may include a restorative meeting where the victim (or a sur­ro­gate) expresses feelings and asks questions. This can lead offend­ers to feel empathy, and motiv­ate them to co-operate with reparation and re­­habilitation.

Punishment for its own sake makes people think of themselves, not their victims. To say “We will punish you, and then squeeze in some rehabilitation when resources permit” is putting the cart before the horse. It makes more sense to say: “We will do what we can to persuade and enable you to make reparation for the harm you have done. That also restricts your liberty and shows society’s condemnation of your act.” For more serious offences, a further period of super­vision and control could be added.

These changes are not a “quick fix”, but would move towards a system that reserved prison for cases where there was a high risk of serious reoffending, absconding, or non-cooperation with community-based measures. This strategy would satisfy the requirements of senten­cing: repair­ing harm, reducing re­­offending, denouncing crime, and protecting the public. Wrongdoers would face due consequences, while being treated with the respect that the community expects of them in return.


Martin Wright is a former director of the Howard League, and co-editor of Civilising Criminal Justice (Water­side Press, 2013). Figures are mainly taken from the Prison Reform Trust’s Prison Factfile, autumn 2016.

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