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It’s Hard to See How ‘Prison Works’

Overcrowding, rising prison deaths, financial cutbacks, and no deliverable plan – the prison system in England and Wales is close to chaos

Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to HMP Leeds. Photo: PA/Alamy

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On an autumn afternoon in 1993, a middle-aged man stood up in front of a crowd of 2,000 like-minded supporters, adjusted his glasses, and let rip.

“Prison works”, declared then Home Secretary Michael Howard to rapturous applause. In those two words at the Conservative Party Conference, he articulated what for decades has been the cornerstone of Tory policy on law and order.

Since then, overcrowding, rising numbers of prison deaths, financial cutbacks and the absence of a deliverable plan, mean that the prison system in England and Wales is now close to chaos. 

But back in 1993, Howard was determined to spell out just how and why he believed prison was so effective. 

“It ensures that we are protected from murderers, muggers and rapists – and it makes many who are tempted to commit crime think twice,” he said. “This may mean that more people will go to prison.  I do not flinch from that. We shall no longer judge the success of our system of justice by a fall in our prison population.” 

Just as well, really. Prison numbers in England and Wales have risen by 80% since that speech. They currently stand at more than 88,225  and could pass 100,000 by around 2025. 

Although the Government has committed to building 20,000 new prison places by the mid-2020s, by last June only more than 5,000 had been delivered, and some of those will simply replace parts of the existing estate that are deemed unfit for use.

The current practice of inmates sharing two, and even three, to a cell designed for one is likely to continue for some time.

For many who have been to prison, overcrowding is the biggest issue.  

Marc Conway has spent more than 15 years in a range of prisons – from young offenders’ institutions to high security jails like Belmarsh. He now runs prison reform consultancy, Fair Justice.


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“You can be banged up for two to three days at a time, except when you’re allowed out to get food,” he says. “So there’s an almost forced intimacy with someone you’ve never met before. It’s not as though you’re locked up with a friend or a brother. 

“Any phone calls have to be in public or in front of your cellmate. Imagine your girlfriend is telling you she’s leaving you, or your kids are having difficulties at school, and you have to deal with all of that in front of other people. That’s so difficult.” 

He believes overcrowding leads to even bigger problems: “The more inmates they have on the landing, the less prison staff they have per inmate, so the less resources they have for people to go to rehabilitation or re-offending courses.

“And there’s less one-to-one time with prison officers to help you with housing, jobs, universal credit, maintaining family ties. All that makes it more likely that you will re-offend. So overcrowding causes re-offending.”

Mifta Choudhury has also spent many years in the prison system. He was convicted at 16 for murder under joint enterprise laws and served 14 years. He founded Youth-Ink, a charity which focuses on reintroducing ex-prisoners into the community, and has also seen how the lack of prison places causes problems on the wings.

“I was in one prison where overcrowding and staff shortages meant that inmates with mental health problems weren’t getting their medication on time,” he says. “There was one lad who needed his meds at 3.30 every day, but they didn’t let him out of his cell to get it until 4.20. I was walking down the stairs and I saw he was in a right state. He just lashed out at a prison officer, and I had to jump in and grab him and pull him off that officer.”

No Real Answers

The rapidly increasing prison population may be a measure of failure, but it’s far from the only one.

In the 12 months to June 2023, there were 313 deaths in prison custody (up from 288 the previous year), and in the same period there were almost 60,000 incidents of self-harm – the vast majority in female prisons (up 11% year on year).

At the heart of this is the perennial question of money. 

Although in absolute terms government spending on prisons is up since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, the amount in real terms – adjusted for inflation – has fallen by 5.3%.

Conway knows how that affects morale on the landings: “You’re getting cheaper food, and that definitely causes people to feel not looked after, even depressed. Resources for things that help people relax, like table tennis equipment or pool cues, are all cut. Offender behaviour courses cost money and those get cut too.

“So people are less likely to be rehabilitated. Sometimes you can’t get basic things like toilet roll, and that makes a massive amount of difference. So people get angry.”  

In addition to creating extra prison places, Justice Secretary Alex Chalk wants more short sentences to be served in the community. But such alleviation measures are likely to be outweighed by the Government’s commitment in the recent King’s Speech to tougher sentences for the worst offenders and ending automatic halfway release for serious crimes like rape. 

Chalk has floated two other ideas to reduce the pressure.

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The first is to create hundreds of so-called pop-up cells – essentially secure portacabins – on prison grounds, which will add some level of extra capacity in low-risk prisons.

The second is to allow some prisoners to serve part of their sentence abroad.

Although details are sketchy, it seems bizarre to think that a Government which has spent the best part of a decade torpedoing its relationship with its nearest neighbours in the EU will suddenly strike up a partnership in which Europe takes some of our most serious offenders. 

It’s perhaps more likely Chalk wants to send offenders much further afield – something akin to the controversial and unlawful Rwanda scheme to take failed asylum seekers. Who would want to bet that a plan to send British prisoners abroad wouldn’t meet a similar fate in the courts?

“It makes me feel physically sick, thinking of sending criminals to Australia like we did hundreds of years ago,” Conway says. “And how would that work for prisoners? How does my family come and visit me, for example?

“And I bet the Government is not going to send all these people to places like Scandinavia, I’ll bet it’ll be to countries with much harsher regimes. To be honest, it sounds like something out of Charles Dickens.”

The Ministerial Merry-Go-Round

Alex Chalk emerged unscathed from the Prime Minister’s recent reshuffle and seems to have a genuine interest in the criminal justice system and its many problems. But some of his predecessors have given a very different impression.

On occasions, previous justice secretaries have even appeared reluctant to support the judiciary or the rule of law.

Many will remember that, in November 2016, then Justice Secretary Liz Truss failed to defend three High Court judges pictured in a Daily Mail front-page under the headline ‘Enemies of the People’. The right-wing tabloid press was angry at the judges for ruling that the Government could not trigger the process of leaving the EU without Parliament’s approval. The Justice Secretary’s initial reaction to the Mail headline was silence.

Equally remarkable was the response in September 2020 of a future Justice Secretary, Sir Brandon Lewis, to a Government bill to amend the UK’s withdrawal agreement with the EU. A trained barrister, he admitted that the bill broke international law – but suggested this might be acceptable because it did so only “in a specific and limited way.”

There have also been some demoralising U-turns at the department. 

Last January, then Justice Secretary Dominic Raab extended magistrates’ sentencing powers so that they could imprison criminals for up to a year – as opposed to the previous upper limit of six months. The idea was that magistrates would be able to rule on a wider range of cases, thus reducing backlogs at overworked crown courts after the pandemic and a decade of court closures and cost-cutting. 

More than a year later, however, Raab quietly cut the upper limit to six months again. The reason was given as “downstream pressures in the system that have arisen since the extended powers were introduced”. Translation: increased sentencing powers meant magistrates were sending too many people to prison, and there just weren’t enough prison places to cope. Better to have defendants waiting months for trials in overcrowded crown courts instead.


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On top of its chequered recent history, the Ministry of Justice has long lacked continuity of leadership. Since 2010, there have been 10 different justice secretaries and 13 different prisons ministers.

Some experts believe this fast-moving ministerial conveyor belt has promoted a culture of short-termist thinking and headline-chasing – rather than one of developing thought-out plans which need time to deliver. 

“Prisons minister is a poisoned chalice,” argues Marc Conway. “It’s a pretty low-ranking job, and ironically, I think many politicians get sent there as a punishment. Continuity is vital for effective change, but no one stays as Prisons Minister long, so you just don’t get it.”

For Mifta Choudhury, “every time we’ve had a different justice secretary or prisons minister – whether it’s Labour or Conservative – it feels like they’re changing the policy or changing the system. Change is very disruptive for inmates, and that’s when people start kicking off… because none of us have control over our lives once we’re inside”. 

So, 30 years after Michael Howards’ infamous speech, can we say with any confidence that prison works?

“I will always say: follow the evidence,” says Conway. “Reoffending is at an all-time high, suicides in prison are at an all-time high, staff sickness is at an all-time high. So I ask you, does prison work?”

Mifta Choudhury goes further: “I think it’s the whole criminal justice system that doesn’t work – prisons, probation services, the lot. It works in the sense of keeping people contained, but that’s where it ends. There aren’t any steps towards preparing people for life outside. They’re just holding people in prison like it’s a warehouse.”   

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