The prison system in England and Wales is bursting at the seams. Punitive punishments perpetuates demand and neglects the root cause of crime. Sentence reform and investment in preventative measures must be a priority. The Sentencing White Paper will exacerbate an already desperate situation for prisons in England and Wales. The Public Accounts Committee warned MPs days ago that prisons could run out of space in three years.
Longer sentences will do nothing but increase pressure and the workload of already overstretched prison services.
The white paper plans to keep offenders in prisons for longer, just a few days after MPs were warned that UK prisons will reach breaking point within three years. Sexual and violent criminals will spend longer in prison, whole life orders for under-21s will be introduced and the automatic release of inmates who may be dangerous will be halted.
Demand is already stretching prison resources. This is a result of rising demand for prison places, places being taken out of use and delays in building new prisons. Despite promises to create 10,000 new-for-old prison places by 2020, just 206 new places have been delivered so far. Overcrowded prisons means some high-risk inmates are being held in low-security jails.
As of October 2019, 60% of prison establishments were overcrowded and by December 2019, the prison population reached 98% of the usable capacity of the prison system.
England and Wales has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Western Europe with 140 people in prison for every 100,000 of the overall population. This number has almost doubled in the last 20 years from 45,000 to 82,710 in 2019. This number is projected to rise by a further 3,200 places by March 2023.
The courts are also experiencing a backlog of cases totalling over half a million in England and Wales. Once this backlog is rectified prison numbers are likely to rise even further.
Additionally, the HM Prisons and Probation Service has been slapped with significant cuts to its budget in recent years, further stressing their limited resources. The Johnson Government now plans to cut police numbers, slash Crown Prosecution Spending and now prolong sentencing which risks increasing the gap between spending and demand.
Under funding and overcrowding has contributed to the deteriorating conditions. In the 2017/18 annual report the Chief Inspector of Prisons said that the inspectorate had “documented some of the most disturbing we have ever seen”. Similarly, in the 2018/19 report the Chief Inspector described squalid conditions in some prisons with broken windows, unscreened lavatories in shared cells, vermin and filth.
Last year, analysis conducted by the Howard League for Penal Reform showed that three in five men’s prisons are holding more people than they are certified to look after and around 18,000 prisoners are forced to squeeze into multi-occupancy cells. Just 3 days ago, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons said of HMP Preston that the prison is severely overcrowded.
Overcrowding contributes to prisoners mental health problems. As the issue spirals this then leads to increased pressure on staff and in some cases permanent damage to inmates. Lack of access to support combined with overcrowding correlates with 26% of self-harm incidents that happen in the first month of arriving in prison. Safety in prisons has also plummeted with rates of death almost doubling in the last decade. To make matters worse, self-harm and assault hit record highs last year.
Furthermore, stretched resources and vast numbers are accompanied by an ageing population with higher rates of physical and mental health problems and disabilities. The House of Commons Justice and Security Committee reported that up to 90% of prisoners aged 50 or over have at least one moderate or severe health condition, and over 50% have three or more. Among prisoners aged 60 or over, rates of major illness might be as high as 85%. This overstretched staff and increases agitation among prisoners, increasing the likelihood of violence.
Other means of punishment are available. Using this means the pressure could be taken off prisons by investing in non-custodial alternatives to detention, diverting minor cases out of the justice system and reducing high-rates of pre-trial detention.
During lockdown earlier this year, prisons implemented policies that eased pressure on their resources. Pregnant women and prisoners with their children in Mother and Baby Units were temporarily released and risk-assessed prisoners who were within two months of their release date were temporarily released. Although 4,000 prisoners were eligible, only 275 were actually released.
If implemented effectively this scheme could ease the pressure on prisons and enable low-risk offenders to gradually return to society.
Another focus should be on crime prevention methods. It is the equivalent of preventing people from smoking because of its link to lung cancer. You wouldn’t focus policy solely on building hospitals and improving treatment. Instead, as evidenced in previous decades, smoking has been regulated and people are encouraged not to by their doctors.
A more effective policy could make quality early care and education available to all children from birth to age five for families with low-incomes. Similarly, offering voluntary home visiting to at-risk parents of young children or providing effective in-school and after-school programs to all school-age children and youth. Finally, providing children who have had contact with the juvenile system with effective interventions to steer them away from crime could also be an option. An in depth analysis of early intervention methods is beyond the means of this article but there is a correlation between poor educational attainment and early intervention and crime.
In sum, a focus on punitive measures and longer sentences does nothing but increase pressure on an overstretched and underfunded prison system in England and Wales. We must explore ways to alleviate this pressure and tackle the root causes of crime.