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Sentencing: Is Labour's prisons policy just a 'blank page'?

Illustration: Tracy Worrall

8 min read

We are on course to imprison more than 100,000 people within the next three years but don’t have the space. Rob Merrick finds a troubling lack of answers about what comes next. Illustrations by Tracy Worrall

Their cells have no toilets, so the inmates are “using buckets and then throwing the waste out of the window”, the chief inspector of prisons reported following a visit to HMP Bristol.

No, not a finding written in fading ink from Victorian times, but from a July 2023 inspection of one of at least five prisons where “slopping out” – a practice supposedly outlawed in 1996 – continues. The report also condemned “shocking” levels of violence and suicide at the jail.

It is a horror story that seems to epitomise Britain’s prisons crisis, but there are many more to choose from. The cells with no heating or hot water, built for one but where two inmates spend a typical 21 hours a day, perhaps? That “criminal gangs” run many prisons, according to one former governor? Or the soaring number of assaults on staff, which have reached 10 every week at HMP Wandsworth?

Traumatised children at one young offender institution must talk to psychologists through hatches in their cell doors

 Traumatised children at one young offender institution must talk to psychologists through hatches in their cell doors because there are no staff to take them to therapy sessions, a psychologist revealed – while a German court refused to extradite an alleged drug trafficker to the United Kingdom because of the appalling conditions he would face.

It is a crisis that, if the polls are to be believed, a Labour government will inherit in a year or less. So does Keir Starmer’s party have plans that can solve it, or will a lack of funds or ambition mean no end to the misery?

And what about the other crises behind the crisis? The massive backlog in the criminal courts that leaves jails bulging with prisoners languishing on remand, and victims waiting years for justice; the failing probation service; and the unresolved scandal of inmates serving indeterminate sentences with no release date?

Prison reform groups waiting to hear what Labour will do are encouraged by hints that some nettles will be grasped, but fear that prisons policy is still largely, as one put it, “a blank page”.

Illustration by Tracy Worrall
Illustration by Tracy Worrall

At the heart of the mess is an extraordinary government forecast that there will be 94,400 prisoners in England and Wales by March 2025 – and up to 106,300 by March 2027 – without policy changes. At the time of writing, there are places for only 88,970.

These projections were made before the measures in November’s King’s Speech – promising mandatory jail for repeat burglars and shoplifters, and longer sentences for rapists – and, crucially, do not take into account Labour’s own crime pledges.

In a 2021 green paper, entitled Ending Violence Against Women and Girls, Labour proposed tougher sentences for rape and stalking, a clutch of new offences including banning street harassment and landlords demanding sex-for rent, and making misogyny a hate crime.

Prison numbers will undoubtedly soar further if these measures are brought in, but they were proposed before the full scale of the current crisis was laid bare – so will Labour be forced to temper its plans?

At Labour’s October conference, new shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood recommitted the party to delivering 20,000 new prison places, but this simply replicates the Conservative government’s plans – which are mired in planning hurdles.

Two new prisons have opened (HMP Five Wells in Northamptonshire and HMP Fosse Way in Leicester), a third is being built (HMP Millsike in York) and a fourth has permission to be built on land adjacent to the existing HMP Gartree in Leicestershire. But two more are “delayed in planning”, the Ministry of Justice has acknowledged. 

These disputed sites are next door to existing prisons – HMP Garth in Lancashire and HMP Grendon in Buckinghamshire – and are needed to deliver 3,400 of the 20,000 promised places. They will not be ready before 2027 at the earliest, and possibly not before the end of the decade, even if planning appeals are successful.

The Ministry of Justice admits only “around 8,000” places will be ready by mid-2025 – potentially too few for the number of prisoners. And, arguably, the new prisons are needed simply to replace outdated Victorian jails that should have been demolished years ago.

Prison reform groups fear the temptation for Labour to continue a 40-year contest to be toughest on crime will be too great. As Lord Burnett, a former lord chief justice, put it in evidence to the Lords Constitution Committee, one party says “everybody should go to prison” and the other retorts “yes, and for twice as long!”

Prison reform groups waiting to hear what Labour will do fear that prisons policy is still largely ‘a blank page’

Mark Day, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, says a Labour government will have to decide if its 2021 proposals are still realistic, given the soaring prison numbers and lack of money.

“The sentencing measures Labour proposed before the current crisis will further inflate prison numbers. However, so far, it has said little about how it will provide for the existing population projection, let alone the additional places that will be needed to accommodate the demand created by its proposals,” Day warns. 

Andrew Neilson, campaigns director at The Howard League, agrees: “They are holding their cards tightly to their chest. We are left reading what runes we can to work out what their policies will be.”

Does the organisation even know whether Labour wants to send more or fewer people to prison? “That’s not something we have had an answer to,” Neilson concedes.

Strikingly, when in October the Justice Secretary Alex Chalk announced a “presumption against prison sentences of less than 12 months”, with greater use of community sentences instead, Mahmood responded by arguing “the public will undoubtedly be less safe” and that the move was “rushed out with no consideration for victims”.

Neilson argued the cure to an endless party battle over tougher sentencing is for Labour to remove prisons from Punch and Judy politics – by announcing an independent royal commission to investigate the crisis.

“Take the issue out of party politics, if possible. It would be a root and branch exercise, across the parties to take a partisan approach, to recommend how this sentencing inflation can be curbed,” he explains.

Rebuilding effective local probation services after the “disaster” of part-privatisation, and reform of mental health services to speed up transfers out of prison, should be other key priorities.

Neilson warns an end to short sentences will only take the edge off the remorseless rise in prison numbers that will be fuelled by the legislation in the pipeline, because only around five per cent of inmates are serving short jail terms.

Illustration by Tracy Worrall
Illustration by Tracy Worrall

Prison reformers are encouraged by Labour’s intention to pursue a world-first “trauma-informed” approach, working with courts, prisons and scientists to understand how deep-rooted childhood experiences can lead to criminal behaviour in order to design early interventions to prevent that happening.

Starmer has said he became “an evangelist” for “acting early” when director of public prosecutions – and has promised mentors for young people “most vulnerable to crime” – but one prison expert described the policy as “not very well developed”.

Then there is the gaping wound from the last Labour government’s imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentences, which have left nearly 3,000 prisoners locked up indefinitely despite having served their minimum tariffs.

In a Westminster Hall debate in April, Ellie Reeves, then Labour’s prisons spokesperson, criticised the government for rejecting the Commons Justice Select Committee’s call for all IPP offenders to go through a resentencing process – highlighting how 81 IPP inmates had taken their own lives.

That has raised the hopes of campaigners such as the group Ungripp, which says it hopes a future Labour government will “take rightful action in restoring justice, fairness and proportionality to people serving IPP, through developing the measured solution of resentencing”.

Mahmood, a key Starmer ally, was handed the shadow justice post in September, replacing Steve Reed whose headline-grabbing proposals had included recruiting former soldiers as prison guards – before that was dropped.

In her Liverpool conference speech, the former barrister said she believed “unapologetically in punishing criminals”, but also “unapologetically in rehabilitation and redemption”, as she promised local “legal advocates” for rape victims, but otherwise few policy clues.

Labour insiders say Mahmood’s focus is on the justice measures in three bills in the King’s Speech – which will shake up sentencing, give victims new legal rights, and crack down on defendants refusing to attend their sentencing hearings – and that she is yet to signal any change of direction from her predecessor.

Day adds: “With a new shadow justice team, Labour now has an opportunity to revise its policies and bring forward sensible measures which meet the scale of the current crisis.” 

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