For many, the UK prison system has become the perfect model of how not to run a government institution. As of October 2023, two thirds of our prisons are overcrowded, with 84,504 men and 3,622 women currently serving time. This means Britain has the most prisoners per capita of any Western European country, with nowhere near the operational prison capacity to handle it.
Overcrowding greatly worsens the prison environment for inmates. It causes increases in assault, suicide, and drug use. According to Peter Clarke (Chief Inspector of Prisons), the current conditions in UK prisons “have no place in advanced nations in the 21st century.”
[The current UK prison conditions] “have no place in advanced nations in the 21st century”Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons
Crucially overcrowding also leads to higher rates of recidivism, meaning an increase in crime, and further prison overpopulation when the inmates return. This vicious cycle has led to where we are now in 2023, with what is seen as a deep crisis across the entirety of the British justice system.
To remedy this situation, the root cause of the issue must be found first, so that any proposed solutions can solve the actual problem, and not just cause more.
One way to approach the apparent crisis is to look at why the prison population has grown so large. In his summary report for a recent public inquiry done by the Justice Committee, the Chair, Sir Bob Neill noted that “the majority of the public support further increases to the severity of sentences for the gravest criminal offences”.
Polling commissioned by this select committee also showed that the public’s number one priority for prisons is for “protecting the public from further harm”. Meaning that, overall, the public are comfortable with more people going to prison, even when they recognise the issues that this leads to.
To reduce strain on the prison system, the current Secretary of State for Justice, Alex Chalk KC, is looking at cutting short (less than 12 months) sentences, that do nothing but disrupt a person’s life, without having the intended effect of setting them on a more lawful path. Controlled data, and a previous parliamentary briefing, have shown short sentences just make reintegration more challenging and recidivism more likely.
Alternative punishments could include community service requirements, the so-called “Texas-style” approach, paired with a ramping up of probationary measures that could result in the convict returning to a cell for violating any parole agreements.
This proposal has not come without its criticism. People who often find their voices represented in publications like the Daily Mail and favour a more ‘tough-on-crime’ approach, have been placated in some ways by the commitments to raise the upper sentencing guidelines for murders, rapes, etc, plus assurances that entire custodial terms will be served for the worst of criminals.
From the left, new shadow justice secretary Shaban Mahmood took a more supply side approach to the issue, and was highly critical of the Conservative party’s past record, noting their failed commitment to “build 10,000 new prison places by 2020 […] manag[ing] just 206”. This is part of the Labour party’s overall criticism about 13 years of a lack of funding for prisons, which has led to massive shortages in guard staff, with troublingly high job turner over rates due to the stresses of the job.
Some more proposed solutions include a ramping up of deportations for foreign national offenders, with the government hoping to increase from the 3,000 prisoners that were removed from the UK last year, despite that still being well below the pre-pandemic average. Also, the renting of foreign prisons is being considered by Conservatives as a way of freeing up prison places domestically, but that doesn’t appear to be a long term solution as it neither seriously increases the UK’s prisoner capacity, nor does it even slightly tackle the underlying reason as to why there are so many prisoners to begin with.
Either way something clearly has to give, as recent reports suggests that some convicted criminals are seemingly not being imprisoned due to a lack of space. Defendants on trial often find themselves back amongst the general public, but for recent convicts that are supposed to be in remand to still be out there in the community could be highly distressing to victims, particularly those of rape or assault. Mr. Chalk has said that “categorical[ly]: this is untrue”, and that there is just a backlog of unseen cases that built up over covid that are now going through the justice system as intended.
Recent reports suggest that some convicted criminals are seemingly not being imprisoned due to a lack of space
In politics, problems are easy to find, but their root causes are not always clear, and finding good solutions is even harder. Sometimes they take time for their impacts to be realised, and sometimes they just fail altogether for no obvious reason, which wastes time and public money. It requires a lot of attention and it is why the government has been heavily criticised for not taking action a long time ago.
Prisons are perhaps the hardest of institutions to reshape as they are unique in their moral obligations and requirements. Serving as both a place of quarantine from the general public, and as a place of rehabilitation, it seems that currently they are struggling to do either. Solutions will have to be creative and detailed, but they don’t have to be intuitive, nor do they have to be necessarily that popular. But as projections suggest that the prison population will pass 94,000 by 2025 and possibly even 105,000 by 2027, solutions will nevertheless have to come at some point, they will have to work, and in all likelihood, they will have to come now.