The State of Britain’s Prisons

David Ramsbotham
17 June 2008


From time immemorial, every country in the world has established and maintained a criminal justice system, for the purpose of protecting its public by upholding the law and punishing offenders.  Each has tailor- made its system to reflect its particular character and need. In some countries certain offences are treated more or less harshly, according to national taste.  The acute part of each system is a prison system, which has to cater for a wide variety of offenders and their criminality.

The prison system in the United Kingdom is in crisis. The prisoner population continues to rise and rise. To compound this problem, insufficient resources seem to have been made available to the Prison Service, to enable it to conduct programmes for every prisoner, designed to challenge their crimes in such a way that they will not re-offend on release.  I say ‘seem to' for good reason: no one has worked out exactly how much it would cost to carry out all the work that the government says it wants to carry out with prisoners, and on their behalf.  All we know is how much money has been made available in general and what work is actually being carried out.

What the statistics tell us

The statistics most often used to describe the size of a prison system are those of the number imprisoned per head of population.  England and Wales imprison 147 per 100,000 people. This will rise to 178 per 100,000 when the present building programme is complete. This is the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe. It is far higher than France, at 91, or Germany, at 95.  Once the building programme is complete it will also overtake the rates of Bulgaria (148), Slovakia (155) Romania (155) and Hungary (156). 

Since the present Labour government came to power in 1997, the prison population has increased from 60,131 to 83,171. The cost of imprisonment has also risen in the same period, from £2.843 Billion to £4.325 Billion. Today, it costs £40,992 to keep one person in prison for a year.

Bad management

A further complication is concealed behind this talk of a ‘crisis' in the prison system. There are two major deficiencies in the way that imprisonment is currently conducted. These concern the provision and supervision of work being carried out with prisoners and on their behalf. The prison system as a whole is poorly organised and structured if the purpose of imprisonment is to protect the public by preventing re-offending.

It is worth briefly examining how that situation has come about, because apart from current pressures, there are also historical reasons. Until 1877 there were two types of prison in the country. There were local prisons, paid for by local taxes, into which offenders awaiting trial and convicted prisoners serving short sentences were committed. There were also what were called convict prisons, to which prisoners serving sentences of more than 4 years were sent.  These were then nationalised under a Prison Commission, as part of a drive to reduce the burden of taxation on rural communities.  Ever since, most governors of the 142 prisons have had to compromise between the needs of these very different types of prisoner. The result is on the one hand that neither type of prisoner receives full and appropriate treatment. On the other, that  the reconviction rate remains obdurately high, at 67% for adult males and higher for younger offenders.

In 1962 the Prison Commission was itself abolished and the Prison Service became a department of the Home Office, as our Ministry of Internal Affairs is called.  Now whatever prisons are or are not, they are not a department of a government ministry, managed bureaucratically by bureaucrats.  They are operational units, whose staff must be led. They must be resourced to cater for the needs of particular types of prisoner held. In each prison these will range widely: there are high risk prisoners, short sentenced, those with long and life sentences, women, young offenders, sex offenders, foreign nationals and so on. 

How to prevent re-offending

History proves that the three things most likely to prevent re-offending are a home, a job and a family or stable relationship, all three of which are put at risk by imprisonment.  There are two ways to minimise that risk. Prisoners should be kept as near to their homes as possible. Local employers and other organisations also need to help with the rehabilitation of prisoners from their region.

Neither of these two requirements is being satisfied under the current system.  The Prison Service obdurately refuses to appoint named individuals to be responsible and accountable for the treatment and conditions of each type of prisoner, wherever in the country they might be imprisoned. So what happens to each prisoner is a lottery, depending on the governor of the prison in which they are confined.

Cell space is in short supply, and the movement of prisoners is controlled nationally. As a result, far too many prisoners are sent far away from their homes, often in the middle of courses or training programmes. This is extremely wasteful of scarce resources. It is also damaging to the morale and motivation of the many wonderful and hard working staff, and volunteers. These people know what needs to be done and they try their hardest to bring this about.  In short, faulty management structures and practices are a major and avoidable contributor to the crisis.

All this has been accelerated by a government which, for the past eleven years, has produced a torrent of legislation and direction to sentencers. This has resulted in a dramatic rise in the prison population, which in turn has swamped the limited resources. 

Unless this situation is reversed, it can only get worse. This will happen if the government presses ahead with its latest idea, namely the building of three what they call Titan prisons, each holding 2500 prisoners.  Again history proves that large silos are the least effective places in which to rehabilitate offenders.

Learn from good practice

No situation is wholly bad, and what must be noted is that, amidst all this chaos, a remarkable amount of good practice is being developed by good staff in almost every prison. 

For example a nurse in a large, local prison, concerned that staff did not understand the symptoms of mental illness, or what treatment was inappropriate, designed a training course for the staff in her prison staff that could have been conducted everywhere.  A member of staff in another establishment designed a course for young prisoners called ‘Learning to live alone', which amounted to practical skills that could be taught, with advantage, in schools let alone prisons, everywhere. 

However, because no one is responsible for evaluating and spreading such practices, they remain locked in their own prisons, likely to die when the initiator moves on. 

We know what should be done to improve the situation. Directors should be appointed in all prisons, charged with turning good practice into common practice. This the Prison Service obdurately refuses to do.

Two independent inspectorates

Were it not for two unique organisations, it is doubtful whether anyone would even know about the actual situation.

The first is the independent inspectorates. England, Wales, Scotland and Western Australia are the only countries in the world which have independent prison inspectorates, responsible for monitoring and reporting on the treatment and conditions for prisoners. This they do by means of five yearly inspections and unannounced follow-ups in the interim. The Chief Inspector - a post that I held from 1995 to 2001 - deliberately does not come from the Prison Service. They are therefore able to offer an entirely objective quality assurance. 

Secondly, each prison has what is called an Independent Monitoring Board, made up of experienced and motivated volunteers. Many of these are magistrates, who monitor and report on treatment and conditions in their local prisons. 

Without these two, and the statutory requirement that their reports are made public, the overall situation would remain hidden. They are the jewels in the British Criminal Justice crown and I strongly recommend them to others. Their contribution is invaluable, particularly in the context of Human Rights.


What should be done

The situation in Britain is not a happy one. But it is not irreversible. Government only needs to listen to the voices of the many people who know what is going wrong and have practical advice to give on how to rectify it.  Government has not listened for too long.  In the best interests of the public it claims to protect, it cannot afford to close its ears any longer.

I would advocate a break away from the current centralised system. Prisons should be based on the different regions in the country. The system should be focused on helping the governors of every prison to govern their prison.  At the top I would have a Ministerial Policy Committee, containing ministers from every ministry involved, including health and education. They would work through Regional Policy Committees, which would include representatives of local government. 

I would also have a Ministerial Executive Committee, consisting of the heads of the Prison Service, Probation Service, Youth Justice Board and a still-to-be-agreed Women's Justice Board.  Each of these should be responsible and accountable for the treatment and conditions of all prisoners in their particular area.

As far as prisons are concerned, within each region there should be enough prison places to ensure that no one - with the exception of high security prisoners, whose numbers do not justify a separate prison in each region - was held outside their region. 

In each region a Regional Manager should be made responsible and accountable for ensuring that every prison was supported with what it needed from within that region, from education and training to resettlement support and healthcare.  What is called population management, or the movement of prisoners, should be delegated to regional managers. The aim would be that no one should be moved outside the region, or between prisons except to attend a course or at particular stages during a sentence. 

In addition, I would have directors responsible and accountable for each type of prison, wherever it was, to ensure consistency of treatment and conditions for prisoners.  They would be responsible for budgets, programmes, staff training and career management. 

Grand claims are made for the criminal justice system. Its purported aim is to protect the public by preventing re-offending, and to help prisoners live useful and law-abiding lives in prison and on release.  At present it is not doing either.  Experience and common sense suggest that encouraging regions to own their own problems will result in a better solution. The present system continues to fail to respond to outside pressures. The result is a crisis that was avoidable.

After rising to the rank of a four-star general in the British Army, Lord Ramsbotham served as a vigorously critical Chief Inspector of Prisons 1995-2001, from which post he was effectively forced out by the Home Secretary

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