‘A blot on our legal system’: New head of prisons’ union calls for urgent review of indefinite sentences

Exclusive: Britain must properly fund prison system to ease current ‘impossible’ situation – or else change how we punish criminals, warns veteran governor

Andy Gregory
Saturday 27 April 2024 15:14 BST
Tom Wheatley, president of the Prison Governors Association, says the UK must decide whether to send less people to prison or properly invest in jails
Tom Wheatley, president of the Prison Governors Association, says the UK must decide whether to send less people to prison or properly invest in jails (Getty/ The Independent )

The new chief of the prison governors’ union has questioned whether politicians have the “courage” to free prisoners still trapped behind bars on abolished indefinite sentences – as he warned of the need for a fundamental rethink of how Britain punishes criminals.

In his first newspaper interview in the role, Tom Wheatley told The Independent that many cash-strapped governors face an “impossible” task of keeping crumbling, overcrowded and increasingly violent prisons running in a way that keeps the public safe.

Arguing that ever-longer sentences will keep placing an unsustainable strain on the prison system unless it is properly funded, making it harder to rehabilitate dangerous offenders, Mr Wheatley warned that politicians must be brave enough to consider making “fundamental changes to the way we use prisons”.

With the size of Britain’s growing inmate population “moving more towards the US” than comparable European nations, he said the UK must decide whether it wants either to properly invest in jails – or else to send fewer people to prison, and spend that money on schools, hospitals and social care instead.

Likening the current situation to using surgery as “the first response” for any patient who visits a GP, Mr Wheatley said: “There are a lot of things we could do before we get to the stage where we’re going to take the most expensive and highest-risk option.

“We could take a different view on how we use punishment, and what things prison is suitable for.”

Giving one such example, he pointed to “the blot on our legal system” of “imprisonment for public protection” (IPP) sentences, which saw people handed minimum jail terms but no maximum.

Despite the policy being axed over a decade ago, disowned by its Blair-era architect and criticised by the UN torture tsar (Alice Jill Edwards), thousands of people remain trapped in prison years beyond their original terms, often for minor crimes, with among the highest suicide and self-harm rates of all inmates.

In a stark warning to the government this week following the death of Scott Rider, who took his own life after serving 17 years for a 23-month tariff, senior coroner Tom Osborne has now called for an urgent review of the cases of all prisoners serving IPP sentences.

Backing this call, the new Prison Governors Association chief – who has himself governed six different jails – said: “There’s a deal of political courage needed to do that.

“Because if just one were to reoffend and that reoffending was to be serious, and someone was to get hurt or lose their life even – I don’t think there’s the political courage about to make those kind of judgements.”

A lack of willingness among politicians to make unpopular arguments about the reality and cost of long-term imprisonment is an issue that Mr Wheatley is far from alone in suspecting is linked to the currently dire state of British prisons in general.

Mr Wheatley has worked in prisons for three decades, over which period the inmate population has almost doubled to around 88,000 prisoners in an estate built to house around 79,000 people, parts of which date back to the Napoleonic era.

That increase – projected to hit as high as 106,000 by 2027 – is mostly a result of tougher sentences, with average tariff lengths having grown by half in the decade to 2021. Despite this, research suggests more voters believe sentences have become shorter rather than longer over that period.

“It’s very, very difficult when somebody has committed an awful crime, an atrocity of some description, to argue that sending that person to prison forever isn’t the best way to protect the public,” said Mr Wheatley.

“If you look back at where the prison population started to increase significantly, the [1993] killing of James Bulger sort of sits at the beginning of that period of time. That was a horrific offence and shocked people. I can remember people almost incredulous that they lived in a country where that could happen.

“But I think the response of politicians to that has had long-term consequences for prison population,” said Mr Wheatley.

“What I would want from politicians is political leadership that both addresses the issue and the feelings of the public and actually says, ‘does this awful event mean we need to change the law?’ Because I think those two things have become so closely linked,” he said.

Despite new plans to rapidly create more prison places, capacity is now failing to keep up – to the extent that ministers have now been forced to free inmates at overcrowded jails up to 60 days early and plan to introduce a presumption against jailing people for sentences shorter than a year.

Meanwhile, years of overcrowding and underfunding has hampered maintenance of the increasingly dilapidated prison estate, making jails at the sharp end of this – some of which Mr Wheatley believes should be decommissioned – both more difficult to run and intolerable to inhabit.

“In a world of limited resources,” he argued, “we are going to have to think differently about what we do, and use prison as our ultimate sanction in criminal justice in a way that best serves the public. That might mean that some people spend less time in prison, it might mean that some spend more.

“But it means we have to be really clear about what the purpose of prison is and how we are paying for it... You can’t have an ever-increasing prison population and continue to fund it as if you haven’t.”

As things stand, governors “are not able to give the public an effective prison service”, warned Mr Wheatley, adding: “There will no doubt be effects of that – there will be people who commit serious further offences when they get out.”

“If we’re not providing rehabilitation – if we’re keeping prisoners locked in their cells for 22 or 23 hours a day – we’re not having a positive affect on them. We might be having a really detrimental effect on them, making them more risky rather than less risky – that will play out in the future,” he warned.

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