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The disgrace of Britain's jails: Institutions short-change inmates and society

Overcrowding, reoffending, and mandatory sentencing have created prisons that are ineffective and expensive, a charity warns

Emily Dugan
Sunday 15 November 2009 01:00 GMT
(Getty Images)

Britain's prison system is being "brought to its knees", according to penal reform experts responding to a damning new report obtained by The Independent on Sunday. The soaring prison population, consistently high re-offending rates and increasing numbers of people on short sentences highlighted in the Prison Reform Trust's dossier have produced a system that is "not fit for purpose", they say.

The alarming findings come at a time when the number of offences recorded by police has fallen, as has the number of people found guilty in the courts. The report's evidence will heap pressure on the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, already under fire for his stewardship of the penal system.

England and Wales have the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe, with a prison population that last month hit a new record of 84,706. In France, which has a similar population, there are just 59,655 people behind bars. Yet the number of offences recorded by police in the UK has fallen from 5,075,000 in 1991 to 4,951,000 in 2007 – and in the same period 1,300 fewer people were found guilty in court.

Despite the falling number of convictions since 1995, the prison population of England and Wales has grown by 66 per cent. There are now 154 imprisoned people per 100,000 of the population, which could rise to as many as 178 if the prison population grows to 96,000 by 2014 – a figure the Government is already preparing for.

"If anyone is being sensible and looking at the overall situation they will realise it's a disaster area that's got to be solved or it will be brought to its knees," said Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons. "You've got to look at all the people that shouldn't be there. The prison service is simply not fit for purpose."

Thanks to the continuous population rise the prison system has been overcrowded since 1994, with a quarter of prisoners doubled up in a cell designed for one. The capacity of prisons has increased by a third since Labour came to power in 1997, with more than 20,000 beds added. But that has not been enough to hold the numbers it wants to incarcerate.

The toll of such overcrowded prisons on those suffering from mental health problems is highlighted by the new study. One-fifth of prisoners have multiple mental health disorders, and in the first eight months of 2008 there were 15,800 self-harm incidents, 54 per cent of which involved women, who make up just 5 per cent of the prison population. More than a third of female prisoners attempt suicide at some time in their life.

On Tuesday, the Government will announce how it plans to act on the recommendations of the Bradley review, which was published in April and called for community alternatives to prison for offenders suffering from mental health problems or learning difficulties. Those serving indeterminate sentences for public protection (IPPs) were of particular concern to Lord Bradley's team, as many suffer from serious mental health problems and have no hope of leaving prison.

There has been a more than 400 per cent rise in the number of people serving IPP sentences in the last year, a situation Lord Ramsbotham describes as a "self-perpetuating disaster area". At the latest count, 5,659 people were being held on such sentences, almost half of whom had served longer than their original minimum time.

At the other end of the scale, a rise in shorter prison stays is also a cause for concern. The number of offenders being locked away for three months or less rose 16 per cent between 2007 and 2008 with almost 29,000 people serving fleeting sentences. The damage done by such sentences can be seen in the proportion that receive further convictions: for offenders serving sentences of a year or less the reconviction rate is 60 per cent – almost twice as high as among those who were sentenced to carry out unpaid work.

Women are particularly likely to serve short sentences. While 38 per cent of women prisoners serve three months or less, just 28 per cent of male inmates do. In the past decade the number of women in prison has risen 44 per cent, taking the female prison population to 4,274, so the short sentences have taken a particularly heavy toll on families. Earlier this month, the former Tory leader Ian Duncan Smith's think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice, called for the abolition of shorter sentences. He said the criminal justice system was an "expensive failure" that urgently needs changing.

For young people on the wrong side of the law, the picture is also bleak. Almost a quarter of all young offenders have learning difficulties and 71 per cent have been involved with, or have been in the care of, social services before they entered custody.

For children with such complex needs, experts believe that secure homes are a more humane and effective way of dealing with them. But because of their cost, such facilities are being phased out in favour of detention centres; the bill per person for a young offender's institution is £60,000 a year, while a secure children's home costs £215,000.

According to the Prison Reform Trust figures, the system needs overhauling not just for humane, but also for financial reasons. Expenditure on prisons has risen from £2.8bn in 1995 to £3.8bn in 2008, while reoffenders cost society at least £11bn a year.

Rob Allen, the director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London, says that locking more people up has not proved to be a solution to crime. "Jack Straw is fond of saying that our high prison population has had an effect on our falling crime rate, but the evidence – if you look at trends over time and in different countries – shows no obvious relationship between imprisonment and crime rates. We need to change direction and shift away from prison to community-based projects."

After expensive and unpopular plans to build three "Titan" prisons, each holding 2,500 prisoners, were scrapped, the Government announced in April that it would create five 1,500-place jails around the country. Yet research shows that prisons with 400 or fewer inmates consistently perform better than those with more than 800.

Carol Hedderman, professor of criminology at the University of Leicester, who was previously a senior Home Office official, said she thought that politics was dictating prison policy. "The more we use custody, the worse reconviction rates get, yet we're happy spending all this money knowing that it's not effective for two-thirds of people. There's no political will to say to the public we're wasting money."

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "We have one of the best prison systems in the world and one we should be proud of. In the past decade crime has fallen by a third, violent crime has fallen even faster, and the risk of being a victim is at its lowest for a generation. To stop those who offend from returning to crime, we have committed resources to tackle the root causes of their behaviour."

Failed by the system: 'He was released on to the streets with no support'

Martin Foreman was in and out of prison six times before he died of a drug overdose two years ago, aged 23. He suffered from Asperger's syndrome, and from the age of 18 his difficulties fitting in led him into trouble with the law. Each short prison sentence for minor affray left him in a worse state, and, according to his mother Sue Foreman, he was left to fend for himself with no support from social services or mental health teams.

"Prison is absolutely not the right place for someone with psychiatric problems," Ms Foreman said. "He would cause affray when he got upset and smash things up and then he'd get arrested. In his short lifetime he had 25 convictions. He would come to court and plead guilty but no one ever dealt with the root cause. He just kept lurching from crisis to crisis, which is how it went on until he died of an accidental drug overdose.

"He was always acutely anxious and distressed and kept saying 'it keeps going wrong'. He felt powerless to do anything. When he was released there was nothing in place, no counselling or anything – he was just discharged straight on to the street.

"The system failed my son and it failed us as a family. We were abandoned to manage this deeply troubled young man. It was professional indifference that killed my son.

"With the right support his life could have been better. His life didn't have to be wasted."

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