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Prisons are a festering wound in our public services – they need urgent reform

(Alamy)

4 min read

I became an MP in June 1983 after practising criminal law for 12 years. Much of the parliamentary ambition I had was focused on the criminal justice system. I was troubled by the rising prison population and the increasingly ineffective role of prisons in reforming and improving the lives of young men and women to prepare them for leaving jail.

In the years since, in both Houses, I have continued my interest in the penal system. I enjoyed the great privilege for a time of being president of the Howard League, one of the most articulate and courageous penal reform organisations.

The male prison population of England and Wales in 1983 was 45,000. Today it is around 80,000. In 1983 MPs across the House were shocked at the inexorable increase, now that number has almost doubled. In 1900 there were 86 prisoners per 100,000 people in the general population. By 2022 grew to 150 per 100,000.

What evidence is there that the increase has had any beneficial effect on society? Are the streets, our homes and our persons safer now than they were? The clear answer to both those questions is No.

It is inexcusable that so little action takes place in the teeth of such obvious deficiencies

The adverse consequences for the country of the changes can be spelled out in many ways. I will focus on two: the cost of excessive levels of imprisonment and the unnecessarily wretched effects of prisons in poor conditions.

For this purpose I must namecheck two individuals – Charlie Taylor,  HM chief inspector of prisons since 2020, a frank and expert realist; and Georgina Sturge of the House of Commons Library, for her excellent statistical analysis including her publication of October 2022.

What can we learn from their expertise? The true direct annual cost per prisoner is over £42,000. The cost per prison place is over £44,000. What could we achieve if we reduced the prison population dramatically and spent even half of the £86,000 total per prisoner on non-custodial alternatives for a greater number? Other comparable countries do just that. Germany, France, Italy and Spain – none noticeably less law-abiding than England and Wales – have significantly smaller prison populations, a higher level of non-custodial disposals and evidence of improving the lives of those convicted of less serious offences.

We learn that 40 years ago large numbers of young male prisoners were locked in their cells for up to 23 hours per day: that is marginally worse than 20 years earlier. Over half of men, and 76 per cent of women, reported significant mental health issues, treated to variable effect. Workshops and grounds are not being used. Daytime TV is the most available activity for many. The teaching of reading is so poor and sporadic that poor literacy is barely addressed. Teachers in some prisons are not educated in how to teach prisoners to read. Broader education, despite high quality work in some institutions, is at best patchy. There is a shortage and unacceptable churn of prison staff. In the background prison remains the most boring place on earth for men and women who need help to lead their future lives in their homes and communities, rather than in locked cells.

Then there is the issue of the courts. One might assume that prisons would have a routine and effective system of transporting inmates to courts on the right day, and on time. Not so – every day in the larger crown courts some prisoners are not delivered because court orders are not read properly, or transport arrangements fail. The cost for the courts is substantial, and the inconvenience to the courts is frustrating and even demoralising.

So what is required? First, Charlie Taylor’s reports should be acted upon urgently by the Ministry of Justice. Such action demonstrably would be cost-effective. It is inexcusable that so little action takes place in the teeth of such obvious deficiencies.

The new Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk, an experienced and admired lawyer, has the chance to lead the reform of the prison and sentencing system, a festering wound in our public services. I trust that he will accept the challenge.

 

Lord Carlile of Berriew, crossbench peer

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