Publication Justice 20 January, 2020

The prison system: Priorities for investment

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This report assesses the state of the current prison system and recommends that the new Government should focus on four areas: sentencing policy, the prison estate, safety, and the workforce.

In 2016 the Government published a landmark White Paper, ‘Prison Safety and Reform’, which promised to deliver much-needed changes to the prison system. It committed to address poor safety for staff and prisoners, high levels of assaults, the poor condition of the estate, poor retention in the workforce, and ultimately poor outcomes for reoffending.

However, many prisons have continued to become less safe and decent, providing few opportunities to address prisoners’ behaviours and struggling to retain experienced staff. To reverse this decline in standards, urgent and evidence-led investment is required. This report recommends that the new Government should focus on four areas: sentencing policy, the prison estate, safety, and the workforce.

Smarter sentencing

Short-custodial sentences create churn and instability in the prison population, are expensive, and continue to result in high levels of reoffending. Evidence shows that community sentences are on average more effective, but their use has more than halved in the last decade. The Government should consult on the use of custodial sentences and how to reverse this decline.

Creating a fit-for-purpose estate

Large parts of the prison estate are unfit for purpose. Many prisons are overcrowded, and there is a £900 million pound backlog for prison maintenance. While new prison places will be welcome to reduce overcrowding, the Government must do more to maintain the existing estate. It should develop plans to close prisons it has previously identified as “unfit” as soon as population pressures allow, as continuing to use them will not be efficient or sustainable.

Creating safer prisons

The growth in the use of psychoactive substances creates risks for prisoners and staff and is extremely disruptive. Analysis of HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ survey responses suggests that the number of prisoners who have developed a drug problem in custody has more than doubled in the last five years. Prisons urgently need to be equipped to disrupt the supply of drugs so they can focus on reducing drug supply. This will require not just new equipment, but recurring spending on staff.

Developing the workforce

While the overall number of prison officers is increasing, many new officers are inexperienced and attrition rates are high. It is important that prisoners can develop experience and skills to supervise and help the prisoners under their supervision. Wider investments to create safe, decent prisons should help retention, but there must also be targeted investment in pay.

These recommendations would help to stabilise prisons, but they will not go far enough. Without a clear strategy to manage the prison population in the future, overcrowding will persist, and it will be hard to make progress.