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10 February 2020updated 24 Jul 2021 4:09am

Prisoners trapped in limbo expose the problem with longer sentences

As the government grapples with the London Bridge and Streatham terror attacks, a major problem in the prison system has been overlooked. 

By Anoosh Chakelian

Longer custodial sentences? Better rehabilitation programmes? More funding for probation services? As the country argues about how best to avoid terror attacks like that at London Bridge last December, or that on Streatham High Road in February, there’s one problem with our prisons that the national conversation appears to have missed.

In certain prisons, inmates are being trapped without the appropriate resources they need to rehabilitate and transition back into the community. According to the National Audit Office’s latest report on improving the prison estate, there is a shortfall of 15,000 “training” and “resettlement” places across the prison estate in England and Wales. (“Training prisons” accommodate long-term prisoners and provide rehabilitation opportunities. “Resettlement prisons” prepare prisoners for release and facilitate their return to the community.)

That means prisoners are getting stuck in local “reception prisons” (short-stay prisons for those awaiting trial or sentencing, or newly sentenced prisoners waiting to be allocated, known generally as “remand prisons”) when they could be being rehabilitated instead.

Remand prisons tend to be older, shabbier and more overcrowded, with fewer work opportunities or services to access. Inmates are more likely to be locked up for most of the day, with two people sometimes confined to cells designed for one.

“Population pressures mean that prisoners are not always held in prisons that meet their needs,” says the NAO report. “HMPPS [Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service] expects local prisons to accommodate prisoners on remand or serving short sentences, but they are increasingly accommodating longer-sentenced prisoners because of shortfalls in prison places designed to support offenders’ transition into the community.

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“This means that many prisoners live in unnecessarily stringent security conditions while others live in low-security environments relative to their higher risks.”

This situation leads to overcrowded, understaffed prisons that are not designed to hold inmates for the long term. Demotivation of staff and deterioration of prison conditions are among the potential consequences of this – the NAO report cites the “growing availability of drugs, vandalism, and increasing violence and self-harm” in prisons, and finds that the prison environment plays “a role in how prisoners behave”.

This remand prison limbo could also be a factor in prisoners spending more time in their cells, as reported by the Institute for Government’s 2019 prison performance tracker. “If prisoners spend more time in their cells, they will spend less time engaged in retraining and education,” it reports. “But the evidence suggests that this is exactly what is happening.”

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Indeed, the number of prisoners beginning and completing accredited courses and qualifications that may support them upon their release from prison is falling, with course starts falling by 36 per cent between 2009/10 and 2017/18, and course completions falling by 23 per cent since 2014/15. There has also been a decline in the number of prisoners gaining academic qualifications, with 40 per cent fewer achieving pre-GCSE and GCSE-level maths qualifications since 2010/11, and a 47 per cent drop in English qualification. 

The Ministry of Justice is only on track to deliver 3,566 of its 10,000 target of prison places by 2023-24, and yet ministers are calling for longer prison sentences. As the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier MP, commented: “The government say they want people to serve more time, but soon the prison population could exceed capacity. As the Streatham attack highlighted, the Prison and Probation Service urgently need a long-term plan to improve our prisons and will need the funding to do this.”