28 June 2023

As a former inmate, I know just how badly our prisons need reform


Before being sentenced to 45 months in prison for fraud, I knew that British prisons were bad. I expected endemic violence, drugs and filth. What I found inside still horrified me. Yes, our prisons are dirty, dangerous and awash with drugs. What’s much worse though is that they make prisoners more likely to reoffend, costing British society over £18bn a year

This might seem counterintuitive. Surely locking criminals away protects us, and reduces crime? To an extent this is true. However, the reality is that only about 10% of the prison population are ‘lifers’ or IPPers, on indeterminate sentences. Almost all other prisoners will be released one day. The UK imprisons about 85,000 people at a time and  about 45,000 of those are released each year. An effective prison system would do everything possible to ensure released prisoners become productive members of society rather than reoffending. 

Unfortunately our prison system is far from effective. Over 31% of prisoners are proven to reoffend within a year of their release. As police only solve about 9% of reported crimes the real reoffending rate is likely to be higher.

Almost all prisoners are jailed for breaking society’s rules. An effective prison system should teach inmates to respect rules. Unfortunately our prisons also teach that rules, rather than being respected, should be circumvented whenever it is convenient to do so.

The prison system suffers from having too many rules. While some, like prohibitions on weapons, phones, drugs or alcohol, are sensible and consistently applied, others are seen as trivial or ridiculous by prisoners and staff.

For example, most prisons have a ‘no vaping on the landings’ rule. In my experience this is almost never enforced. At HMP Wandsworth prisoners and officers often vaped while walking about the wings. I once watched a very new officer tell two prisoners to stop vaping, only to be laughed at by those men, and by other officers.

Another rule bans trading between prisoners, with the intent of preventing debts and the violence that can follow. In reality, a huge volume of trade occurs, with prison officers turning a blind eye and sometimes even facilitating it. I often observed officers in Wandsworth transporting ‘canteen’ items from one cell to another as a favour to prisoners.

When the people in charge have such little respect for rules, prisoners learn exactly the wrong lesson; rules shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Further, rules, and their application, vary hugely between prison, meaning that each time an inmate is transferred he has to adapt to a new system. Communications are often lacking. In 2022 the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) found that:

‘The communication of prison rules and procedures by word-of-mouth could be even worse. Staff might get exhausted with prisoners constantly asking the same things. prisoners might pass on incorrect information, genuinely and on purpose’. 

A better approach would be a ‘zero-based’ review of prison rules. For example, we probably no longer need the ban on maps which resulted in my copy of Risk being impounded at HMP Wandsworth. Prison governors must ensure that retained rules are communicated and consistently applied by all staff.

Perverse incentives

Prison incentive structures are also flawed. At HMP Wandsworth in the summer of 2020 a prisoner assaulted his elderly cellmate so violently that the man was hospitalised. Officers rewarded the attacker with a single person cell and a desirable, unsupervised job in the gardens. Another man destroyed his cell, ripping pipes and fittings from the wall, and staff found him an Xbox. Those prisoners who made noise and complained would often be allowed more time out of their cells, while those who sat quietly suffered in isolation. 

Why does this happen? Being responsible for a wing full of prisoners is a demanding, stressful and challenging job. This is exacerbated by what Alex South describes as ‘benchmarking’, an MoJ policy which drives prisons to use as few staff as possible for every process. Prisons themselves are traumatising environments. Every shout and bang echoes off steel and concrete. Chains jangle. Locks thunk. Hundreds of near-strangers crammed together, watching one another. While I, and every former prisoner I know, carries that trauma, I also believe our prisons harm those who work in them. A former soldier I met at HMP Hollesley Bay said to me that ‘prison is as strange as war, and as hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been there’.

The result is that staff often burn out. Alex South says that ‘almost every officer’ develops their ‘own version’ of this trauma. Nightmares and anxiety are common. So our experienced prison officers quit, or become so emotionally deadened that they lose all empathy. Over 40% of prison staff want to leave. 

As a result prison wings are staffed with a small number of often inexperienced officers who regularly choose to placate prisoners because it’s easier than demanding rigorous, consistent standards of behaviour. Every day prison shows inmates that antisocial behaviour produces better outcomes. Why would we expect them to behave differently on release? 

Prisons must retain high-quality staff, ensure that enough of them are present on wings and that they have the direction, leadership and support to hold the line against antisocial behaviour. Of course this will require more funding. 

A further weakness in prison incentives is the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme. In theory this rewards good behaviour and punishes rule breaking. Unfortunately other than the loss of a TV, the downsides to being on ‘Basic’ rather than ‘Standard’ or ‘Enhanced’ are limited, and most prisoners secure Enhanced status within weeks of arriving. At that point unless they are caught doing something particularly egregious, inmates will remain Enhanced until their release.

An effective incentive system would have more layers, and take longer to progress through. It could also be explicitly linked to transfers to lower security and open prisons. 

School for scoundrels

Ensuring that our prisons teach inmates to obey rules and behave in a prosocial manner isn’t enough though. We must also ensure prisoners leave prison with the skills necessary to secure legitimate work and support their families.

Prison education is very challenging. A quarter of prisoners are care leavers, over 40% were permanently excluded from school and nearly a third have a learning difficulty or disability, while 57% of prisoners have a reading age below that expected of an 11 year old. I witnessed prisoners unable to read well enough to understand the literacy tests they’d been asked to complete. Ofsted and HM Inspectorate of Prisons conducted a joint inspection into prison literacy education in 2022. They found that ‘few teachers know how to teach prisoners to read, resources are inadequate and there are no meaningful measures of progress’ and ‘contracts for education providers’ do not reward literacy programmes.

Education for prisoners who are literate is not much better. Qualifications are often unaccredited and of no value outside the prison system. In some cases this is a result of the tendering process. John, the owner of a prison education provider, told me that he recently lost a tender because the prison chose an unaccredited provider as they were £10,000 cheaper. This approach means prisoners spend time completing courses which do not provide access to further education upon release and offer little to employers.

One exception to this grim picture can be found in our open prisons. These establishments house around 4,000 prisoners who are considered unlikely to abscond and who aren’t believed to pose a risk to the public. Subject to further tests, prisoners in open conditions are able to take advantage of ‘Release on Temporary Licence’ (ROTL) to study or work at external educational institutions, travelling there each day and returning to the prison in the evening. 

ROTLs provide fantastic opportunities. I spent the second half of my sentence at Hollesley Bay, an open prison on the Suffolk coast. Men there attended local colleges and universities, completing robust and meaningful courses. One prisoner I came to know well had left school at 16. With two years left to serve he applied successfully for a degree at a local university. By his release date he’d completed the first two years of a BA, and managed to find a full time job via the university.

The Commons Education Committee accepts Dame Sally Coates’ 2016 recommendation that ‘every prisoner must have a Personal Learning Plan that specifies the educational activity that should be undertaken during their sentence’ but acknowledges that ‘this is not happening consistently’. 

Prison work is similarly poor quality. The MoJ says ‘Having a job on release helps to support people leaving prison rebuild their lives, reducing reoffending and preventing future victims of crime. But the reality falls far short. Most prison jobs are make-work, pay a maximum of about £25 per week and do little to prepare prisoners for seeking employment on release. At Wandsworth I worked in what must have been the most overstaffed library in London. Ten of us performed a job that one or two would have managed in the community. This is typical of prison jobs. The aim is to have as many inmates as possible ‘working’, whether they’re developing real skills or not. Even so, many prisoners don’t participate at all, preferring to spend day after day in their cells.

Again, open prisons do it very differently. During my time at Hollesley Bay hundreds of men left the prison each morning to work in local factories, distribution centres and retailers. They received fair wages on which they paid tax. For many this was the first time in their lives they’d earned honest money. Each prisoner also paid a substantial deduction towards the Victim Surcharge Fund. Even after these deductions men were able to save money, meaning they’d be able to afford to live upon release. Some sent money home to their families supporting their loved ones for the first time in years. The self-respect, appreciation of honest work and strengthened relationships all helped these prisoners be less likely to reoffend on release. 

Making prisons forces for change

How do we fix all these huge problems? We would need to start by expanding the Open prison estate. Far more low-risk prisoners could be housed in open conditions, saving approximately £15,000 per prisoner per year. Once in open conditions the expectation should be that most prisoners spend their days on ROTLs, either working or studying in the community. 

Alongside this, a ‘zero-based’ review of prison rules would establish a new, clear set of rules and policies including around antisocial behaviour. These rules would then need to be enforced consistently and robustly. 

We should also develop a bespoke, personal plan for each inmate on their arrival in prison. This would identify education and training needs, with the goal being greater employability on release. All courses would need to be accredited and recognised outside prison. Prisoners would be expected to participate enthusiastically in this plan, with progression through a more graduated IEP scheme, and transfer to open conditions dependent on this participation. This would mean an end to prisoners wasting endless days in their cells.

Of course, this greater investment in education would cost. Moving a greater portion of the prison population to open conditions could free up a substantial amount from the existing prisons budget, and to the extent that further spending is required we should remember that reoffending costs over £18bn every year. Reducing that cost, and turning career criminals into productive, working, tax-paying members of society would be of huge benefit to the UK.

Many will say that prisons should be tough, punishing places and that criminals need to pay their debt to society. Perhaps that’s true. But I’m not sure what we achieve in having prisoners waste years on their bunks, or completing unaccredited courses. Having to study or work full-time seems tougher than a diet of daytime TV, and it will change lives for the better.

Our prisons could be powerful places for change. They could ensure that the vast majority of prisoners are released with more respect for rules, a less antisocial attitude, better qualified and more able to find honest work. If we achieve this we will live in a country with less crime, more social cohesion and a healthier economy. 

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David Shipley is a writer, speaker and former prisoner.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.