Written by Edward O’Claire25/10/23
Prisons are in crisis… again. They haven’t not been in crisis for as long as anyone can remember. Well, there was a time when they were doing okay. But that was because no one was allowed to leave the house except for wine and cheese parties run by/for the government. Nearly two thirds of prisons across the UK are overcrowded and some police forces are having to house prisoners in their custody cells; a measure meant only for brief emergencies has now become routine practice. With a cock-up this big it’s hard to know where to start.

We’ll try to unpack this monumental failure anyway. ‘Prison works’ declared Michael Howard as Home Secretary under John Major. Very insightful, thank you Michael Howard. Since then, as if just to spite the idiot optimist, prisons have seen their populations increase by 80%. So, what has caused this colossal mess? The obvious answer is Tory incompetence, but that doesn’t actually explain much since that’s the answer to pretty much everything. If you ask Alex Chalk, this week’s Justice minister, he’ll tell you, like he told the Commons in mid-October, that the problem definitely has nothing to do with longer average sentences (whilst he simultaneously mandates that the worst offenders are going to spend even longer in prison than they were already). Chalk claims that the problem is due to rises in remand prisoners. In 2019 there were 9,000 and this year there are 15,000. That jump of 6,000 accounts for around 7% of the prison population. The Secretary of State has attached this rise to Covid restrictions slowing the flow of trials and true though this may be, it ignores the fact that prisons were in crisis and trials were slow way before the pandemic anyway. 

Rory Stewart, Prisons Minister in 2019, alongside David Gauke, the then Justice Secretary, had drafted plans to ditch sentences shorter than 6 months for non-violent offenders entirely. This plan was thrown pretty quickly in the bin when the king of posh burbling took the top job and chucked Stewart and his well-researched centrism out of the Conservative party entirely. In answer to a question from Labour MP Kevan Jones, Stewart wrote that a 2015 Ministry of Justice (MoJ) study had found that if offenders who were to receive a sentence of less than 12 months got a community order instead, they were 3% less likely to reoffend than if they had been sent to the clanger. So, what was the government’s response to these statistics that their own department had uncovered? Well, in 2022 nearly 2 in 5 prisoners were sentenced to less than 6 months in prison. 63% of which went on to reoffend within a year. Brilliant stuff. Not only that, but despite the evidence showing that community orders are more effective at reducing reoffending than short-term custodial sentences, their use has been halved since 2012.

The current minister’s plan to help the suffocating prisons is to release ‘lower level offenders’ up to 18 days early. They will then be transferred over to the Probation Service which might tag, house, meet with them and perhaps order them ‘not to enter certain areas such as postcodes.’ Because there are, of course, areas that don’t have postcodes. Good understanding of English postcoding, Alex. But handing people over to the probation delivery units (PDUs) may not go as smoothly as Chalk would like to boast. The Secretary of State beamed that the government has ‘injected £155m a year into PDUs to recruit staff, bring down caseloads and deliver better supervision of offenders in the community’. 

After 5 years of what one academic paper referred to as an ‘unmitigated disaster’, the government ditched their part-privatisation plan in 2020 and the Service is now fully state-run again. The problems don’t stop there. Of 31 PDUs that have been investigated in the last 2 years, 1 was rated ‘good’, 15 were rated ‘requires improvement’ and the other 15 were ‘inadequate’. Chalk might want to be proud of the Probation Service, but a report on the PDUs concluded that the after-effects of the part-privatisation scheme as well as other changes to the Service have meant that in that time the Service had ‘got worse, not better’. The recruitment that Chalk talks about isn’t particularly better either, with Yorkshire and Humber Probation Service reporting a 32% vacancy rate and London’s is nearly 35%. That £155m seems to be going a long way. Worse still is that of 1,509 cases that had been investigated, none of the 6 key elements in the supervision process were being delivered successfully 62% of the time. When child safeguarding enquiries were needed they weren’t done on 45% of occasions and domestic abuse enquiries were only followed through on 49% of the time.

All is not necessarily lost though, even if it might feel like it, as Chalk is intending on reforming short sentencing. ‘We will legislate for a presumption that custodial sentences of less than twelve months in prison will be suspended, and offenders will be punished in the community instead’. Well at least that’s something sensible. As well as that, the Minister has announced that the government is going to speed up the rate of deportation of foreign prisoners ‘so that we have the power to remove foreign criminals up to eighteen months before they are due to be released, up from twelve months now’. However, the exact way in which the government is going to legislate for this, besides assigning more caseworkers to the task, is somewhat unclear. Either way, foreign prisoners account for around 10,000 of the prison population and their removal would certainly go some way to reducing the stress.

The Shadow Justice Secretary, Shabana Mahmood, was not impressed, saying that ‘Removals of foreign national offenders have plummeted by 40% since 2010… This half-baked plan is a huge admission of failure by the government.’ Whilst the crisis continues, only time will tell if the Justice Minister can affect a meaningful solution to what could be viewed as yet another unmitigated disaster coming out of that department.

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