Reforming the prison system

Creating a criminal justice system that works for everyone
Pact CEO's Response To HMIP 'Weekends In Prison' Report

A system in crisis

By any objective measure, large parts of our prison system are in crisis. Inspection reports regularly reveal unacceptable conditions, with reports of vermin, violence, self-harm and people languishing in overcrowded cells with little to do. At the same time, too many people are released without the support they need to set them up for life after prison. 

Many people working in our prisons are nothing short of heroic. Where prisons do succeed it is because of these hidden heroes who go above and beyond, despite the conditions in which they work and the challenges they face.  

This crisis results from political decisions stretching back decades and a conveyor belt of ministers who have largely failed to display the courage required to deliver change. Prisons have endured years of funding cuts while locking up more and more people for longer and longer.   

We continue to incarcerate a higher percentage of our population than our neighbours. We aren’t more criminal than the Italians, French, Spanish or Dutch; rather, we have a legacy of bad politics and bad policy-making.  

We believe there are a series of practical, deliverable proposals that would help to see the sector through the immediate crisis and towards a criminal justice system that delivers for everyone. 

The immediate response 

The Conservative government deserves credit for introducing measures to relieve overcrowding. These include an early release scheme and a presumption favouring community sentences rather than short-term stays in prison.  

However, in practice, too many people have been released at too short notice with too little preparation and have simply ended up being recalled to prison. The third sector is on hand to help but has not been adequately called upon to support. We urge the Labour government to consult the third sector on how the early release scheme can be improved.

A three-year plan

1. More investment in family services: A prison leaver’s most effective resettlement agency is often their family, who help them to get back on their feet and find a home and a job. People who stay in touch with family during their sentence are 39% less likely to reoffend. But just one in three prison leavers who need help getting back in touch with family or friends are receiving it. We need more investment to support prisoners to stay in touch with their families.  

2. Rebalance the prison estate: Fewer than 5,000 prisoners are in open ‘Category D’ prisons, which provide people with a staged progression route towards release. If we have to build new prisons, these Category D prisons should be prioritised—they are faster to build, cheaper to run, and will more effectively prepare prison leavers for life after prison.  

3. Social workers for women's prisons: Self-harm in women's prisons is at alarming levels - incidents have nearly doubled in the last five years. In addition, an estimated 16,000 children have to leave their homes every year when their mother goes to prison. Independent, prison-based social workers were recommended by the Farmer Review in 2019 and have been extremely successfully piloted in two prisons by Pact. A relatively small investment in social workers in all women's prisons would make a big difference in keeping women safe and families together.

Prison Reform (1)
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A ten-year plan

1. A Royal Commission on Justice: We must take the politics out of prison policy and reinstate the proposal for a Royal Commission on Justice that was promised in the 2019 Queen’s Speech. This would allow us to develop a coherent ten-year plan for developing a justice system that protects the public, supports victims, and reforms people who have committed crimes. 

2. Reform of the Mental Health Act: Too many people who offend because they are mentally ill languish in cells where they will get worse, not better. Desperately unwell people are suffering irreversible harm waiting for transfers to secure mental hospitals – just 15% are transferred within the required 28-day period. This is stretching the resources of staff and healthcare teams to breaking point. Rather than housing seriously mentally ill people in prison, we should be investing in the right care for these people and funding appropriate secure or community-based mental health provision. 

3. Tackling inter-generational crime and harm to children: More than 300,000 children a year have to deal with the imprisonment of a parent, causing huge disruption and emotional distress. Labour's election manifesto pledges to do more to identify and support these children. Whilst there remain challenges around the practical delivery of this policy, this is a welcome step forward. 

Harnessing the power, passion and pace of the voluntary sector

It was the voluntary sector and the Church that pioneered many of the things we take for granted today – the Probation Service, Through the Gate services, prison employment and education programmes.

Today, there are dozens of excellent, expert charities in the criminal justice system whose staff have many decades of professional experience. But, all too often, we are simply seen as a set of ‘providers’ within a competitive marketplace rather than partners at the table.

In a speech in January, Sir Kier Starmer said that charities’ voices had been ignored for too long and pledged to reset the relationship between the Government and the voluntary sector. We urge the Labour government to make good on that pledge. We are on hand to support them through the immediate crisis and towards a criminal justice system that delivers for everyone.