Prisons: the inside story

Is the £10m project to tackle drugs and violence in 10 UK prisons likely to prove worthwhile or is it scratching the surface of the problem? Kim Thomas finds out. 

Did Rory Stewart get off lightly? When the prisons minister was promoted to international development secretary in May, it meant he could no longer be held to account for a promise he made last August to resign if he didn’t succeed in reducing the incidence of drugs and violence in 10 prisons. 

We don’t yet know whether the new prisons minister, Robert Buckland, will continue with the project. But was it worth doing in the first place – or was it simply scratching the surface of a much more deep-rooted problem within our prison system?

The original project, announced in August, was to provide £10m to tackle drug and violence problems in 10 prisons: Hull, Humber, Leeds, Lindholme, Moorland, Wealstun, Nottingham, Ranby, Wormwood Scrubs and Isis. Each prison would have new x-ray body scanners and sniffer dogs to detect drugs, while security would be improved through a programme of prison repairs and additional training for prison governors. The announcement was made against a background of rising violence and drug use in prisons: assaults on fellow prisoners and staff have been going up for several years. 

Stewart’s idea of focusing on a fixed number of prisons wasn’t new: Michael Gove, as justice secretary, had plans to implement major reforms in six prisons – an initiative that appears to have been quietly dropped since his departure. Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, has mixed feelings about Stewart’s proposals. He notes that the 10 prisons chosen were far from the worst in the country, and may have been selected to ensure they could meet the targets. 

There are concerns, he adds, that “resources might be draining away from some other prisons” – a worry also expressed by the House of Commons justice select committee report in March into the prison population. It may well be justified: an HM Inspectorate of Prisons report last year into Durham prison noted that the prison’s promised scanning equipment “had been diverted to another prison”.

But Garside also believes that Stewart deserves credit for recognising a “serious problem” and wanting “to do something very practical and concrete to sort out some prisons”.

We don’t yet know how successful Stewart’s policy has been. Ministry of Justice figures show that, while last year saw a rise in prison violence, the final quarter showed a small drop. An MoJ spokesperson adds that it has seen “encouraging signs in the 10 prisons”.

“What a mad system where you lock away the drug addicts with the drug dealers. You lock away the vulnerable with the exploitative.”

Former inmate and author Carl Cattermole

There is widespread agreement, however, that the problems with prisons run deep and are driven by a large growth in the prison population, as well as severe cuts to funding – the CIPFA/Institute for Government Performance Tracker 2018 shows that spending on prisons is 16% lower in real terms than in 2009/10. It is likely, says Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, that Stewart planned to use the initial success of his 10 prisons project as a lever to improve investment in the prison system as a whole.

That investment would need to include more prison officers. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of prison officers was cut by 30% as part of the coalition government’s efforts to reduce public spending. Since then, numbers have gone up again as part of a £70m programme to improve prison security. Between March 2017 and March 2018, the number of prison officers increased by 3,205, or 17%. 

Retention rates are poor, however, and older, experienced officers have been replaced by young and inexperienced ones. Mark Fairhurst, national chair of the Prison Officers’ Association, says that difficulties in recruitment and retention are the consequence of poor working conditions and that “morale is lower than it’s ever been”.

There is an issue, too, about how well prison officers are equipped to support prisoners. Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, notes that it is possible to become a prison officer without any GCSEs, whereas the system needs “extremely skilled, very highly qualified, educated staff in order to deal with people and to run regimes that will turn lives around”. 

An even more intractable problem is that of the growing prison population, which has increased from 44,000 in 1993 to 82,000 today. Garside points out that last year, Mike Driver, chief financial officer for the MoJ, said that the £1.2bn spending hole in the departmental budget could be closed if we had 20,000 fewer people in prison. 

There are a number of reasons why the prison population has increased. Dawson says the most significant is the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which increased penalties for the most serious offences. The consequence is that the UK has more prisoners serving life sentences than France, Germany and Italy combined.

The act also introduced the indeterminate sentence for public protection. This has since been abolished, but it resulted in thousands of people serving much longer sentences than would have been expected. 

Similarly, Garside notes, the parole board has become “much more cautious in its release decisions over a number of years”. An “entirely dysfunctional” probation service and a “massive squeeze on housing” add to the likelihood that released prisoners will re-offend and end up back in prison. 

And there are arguably a large number of mentally ill prisoners who simply shouldn’t be there: 16% of prisoners say they received treatment for a mental health problem in the year before custody, according to the Prison Reform Trust. 
As Dawson notes: “The prison service basically gets people who every other agency in society has failed.”

Conditions in prisons are often squalid. One of the worst, Pentonville prison, is littered with piles of rubbish and over-run with cockroaches. Overcrowding is rife. These systemic problems cannot be addressed, suggests Garside, by “trying 
to fiddle around with scanners or sniffer dogs.” 

Crook agrees: “If you’ve got a prison where most of the men are doubled up in cells designated for one person [with] a toilet inside the cell, and spending most of their time in the cell because there just aren’t the staff and there are too many prisoners, you could improve security, you could put a few extra staff in, you can get them out of their cells a bit more, but you’re not really going to make prison a very worthwhile experience.” 

Bringing the numbers of prisoners down isn’t easy. One measure, advocated by justice secretary David Gauke, is to abolish sentences of six months or less – a proposal welcomed by prison campaigners. “We know that short sentences are counter-productive. They make things worse – they don’t in any sense make things better,” says Crook.

Another option, argues Nina Champion, director of the Criminal Justice Alliance, is to reduce the number of remand prisoners detained until their trial, who make up more than 10% of the prison population. One in seven remand prisoners, she adds, go on to receive non-custodial sentences. 

Reducing the numbers in prison is only part of the solution, however. The problems of drug-taking and violence are interlinked. Crook argues that young people entering prison on remand or short sentences often come from areas where drugs and violence are prevalent: “To expect a miracle to happen – that they’re going to leave all that behind – is naive.” 

It is, argues ex-inmate and author Carl Cattermole, an absurd situation: “The boredom factor leads to people doing really stupid stuff. Vulnerable people take drugs, and stronger people sell drugs. What a mad system where you lock away the drug addicts with the drug dealers. You lock away the vulnerable with the exploitative.”

Fairhurst would like to see more stringent security measures, such as body scanners and search teams at the gate, as well as an increase in prison officers. He believes, however, that the biggest step that can be taken to reduce violence is the provision of workspaces for every prison – currently, he says, many prisons have insufficient workspaces and can only enable prisoners to work for half a day. 

Champion welcomes the recent reintroduction of key workers – staff who work one-to-one with prisoners, offering them support, such as directing them to educational opportunities or to take part in substance abuse recovery programmes. 

She also argues that much more can be done to reduce violence. Some of the more innovative prisons, she says, are starting to bring in experts with conflict resolution skills. “It’s about creating a different culture [for] how you deal with violence, conflict and harm in a prison setting. If you can handle it in that way in prison, you’re giving people skills that they can then take into the outside world.”

There are no quick fixes. If Stewart’s 10 prison project succeeds, then that will be a start – but the goals of reducing the prison population and equipping prisoners with the skills to stay out of prison will require long-term planning and investment. 

size of prison population, up from 44,000 in 1993

spending hole in the MoJ budget, which could be closed if there were 20,000 fewer people in prison

number of prisoners who received treatment for a mental health problem in the year before custody 
Proportion of prison population detained on remand until trial. One in seven then receive non-custodial sentences. 

real-terms drop in spending on prisons since 2009/10 

Prisons in England and Wales 

  • There were 82,384 people in prison in 2018.
  • In the 12 months to March 2019, there were 317 deaths in prison custody, up 18 from the previous year. Of these, 87 deaths were self-inflicted, up 14 from the previous year.
  • Annual assaults reached a record high of 34,223 incidents in 2018, a 16% increase from 2017. Of these, 30% of assaults were on prison staff.
  • Self-harm incidents reached a record high of 55,598 incidents in 2018, 
  • a 25% increase from 2017.
  • One in five prisoners test positive for drugs. 

Sources: Ministry of Justice population bulletin, December 2018
Ministry of Justice HMPPS Annual Digest 2017/18
Ministry of Justice Safety in custody statistics, published April 2019

This article originally appeared in Public Finance in June 2019.