Thursday, 25 July 2013

Can we really get better prisons at reduced costs?

Consider a prison where only 10 per cent of prisoners spend ten or more hours out of their cell on a weekday: where a third say they have felt unsafe, and fewer than a third say a member of staff has checked on them personally in the last week to see how they are getting on; where less than a quarter think it easy to see the doctor and a fifth report that they have been prevented from making a complaint.  This is not a poorly performing jail but one that has been rated as exceptional in the latest Prison Service assessment.

Like all prisons this one is being required to cut its costs.
But will running it more cheaply – which inevitably means reducing staff numbers - do anything to address what seem to be pretty serious shortfalls? Are fewer resources likely to increase the number of prisoners – 11% at the moment -who feel that a member of staff has helped them prepare for release? Or raise from 23% the number of prisoners who say their cell call bell is normally answered within five minutes.

The government will no doubt use the mantra that what matters is not the quantum of resource available but how it is deployed and managed. They might point to modern new prisons where according to their business plan, lower costs can produce improved facilities for the management of prisoners. One such is Oakwood, the UK’s biggest and cheapest prison where a specification
 as high as those in other prisons is allegedly  being provided at less than half the cost per prisoner place.

Unfortunately the Prison ratings place both Oakwood -and Thameside, the other private prison which opened last year-, as being of serious concern. Inspectors went to Oakwood last month and there will be little surprise if they report some of the same problems they found at Thameside. There “as an operational response to rising levels of violence the prison had taken the unusual step of effectively locking down the prison, severely curtailing the regime and in particular prisoner access to time unlocked. The prison had done little to evaluate the success of this quite extreme strategy and at the time of our visit there seemed only vague plans to restore the prison to normality”.

Some of the difficulties of course can be put down to the teething problems that accompany the opening of any new prison.  Others may result from the simple but highly irresponsible policy of trying to run a prison with too few staff.

The serious problems in the best rated prisons let alone the worst suggest a looming institutional crisis. Th
e Prison system and those who inspect it show too great a degree of tolerance of poor standards and of risk. Such a tolerance was one of the reasons identified by Robert Francis as to why numerous warning signs did not  alert the system to the developing disaster in Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust . They must not be unheeded in our prisons.


  1. The most effective and cost effective to deal with crime is prevention. The most effective and cost effective way to deal with prison numbers is prevention - that is by investing in violence prevention that reduces the supply of offenders to police and so courts, but also limiting the number of persons who can be in prison at one time. 20% cut in prison budget means 20% cut in available space in prison. Maybe E and W can learn from the Netherlands, New York City and not so common sense.

  2. Thanks for this Rob. I see a couple of the private prisons came out particularly poorly in the latest performance tables. I don't know if anyone has compared reoffending rates on a Public v Prison basis