Tuesday, 23 December 2014

A Year in Prison

2014 opened with reports of a disturbance at Nottingham prison, the first of several  this year allegedly linked to, if not caused by, overcrowding and staff shortages in various establishments . The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) claimed in response that “all our prisons run a safe and secure regime and are staffed appropriately”.
The year ends with a stand-off between NOMS and the Howard League over the adequacy of staffing arrangements during the Christmas period, particularly in Young Offender Institutions. While the Howard League claims made on Newsnight, may be somewhat overblown, the repeated failure of the Government to acknowledge the seriousness of the problems facing  prisons has been one of the features of the year. The NOMS CEO ‘s rebuttal of the Howard League claims as complete nonsense has more than a hint of protesting too much.  Another feature of 2014 is how perhaps failing prisons are no longer news. 

What can’t be disputed are prison numbers. The prison population last week stood at 85,406, almost 400 higher than this time last year. What looks a relatively modest rise should be seen alongside a much more substantial change in the projected numbers over the next five years. Last year Justice Ministry of Justice statisticians estimated prison numbers would fall to 81,800 by 2019; this year they predicted a rise to more than 90,000.

The change is due to increasing prosecutions of sexual and violent crimes (seen as a Savile effect by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling) but other factors are likely to contribute to future trends. The largely unnecessary  Criminal Justice and Courts Bill debated this year requires 300 places in the short term and more later on. The implementation next year of the Offender Rehabilitation Act (which received Royal Assent in March) will introduce supervision for short term prisoners on release; positive effects on reoffending may be offset by greater use of custody and the risk of breach. An expected sentencing guideline on theft could also increase the use of custody.

The Government claim to be on course to end their term with more adult male prison places than they started through adding house blocks to existing establishments. The Wrexham super prison for 2,106- a Titan in all but name- received planning permission in November but will not open until 2017.  Controversial plans for a secure college for320 juveniles have yet to achieve parliamentary approval with Labour pledging to scrap the plan if they form a government in May 2015. Progress on reforming the Women’s secure estate has been slow although Lib Dem Minister Simon Hughes pledged to divert more women from the system. Decisions on how best to accommodate young adults were deferred pending a review into self-inflicted deaths in the age group chaired by Lord Harris.

The year has seen a series of critical inspection reports, increases in suicides and assaults, and a number of low level disturbances in prisons. In November, 11 prisoners were cleared of mutiny following one such incident at High Down. Most prisons have seen substantial cuts in staffing following the benchmarking exercise and in some areas the effect has been compounded by high vacancy rates and sickness levels.  A reserve bank of prison staff was created to try to fill gaps but the head of prison governors association warned in October  of a tipping point of instability. 
Prison management has not been made easier by a less favourable system of privileges  introduced in adult jails at the end of last year and a uniform 10.30 bedtime in Young Offender Institutions brought in in August.  Foreign nationals were barred from placement in open conditions. It was revealed that prisoners calls to MP’sand lawyers had been unlawfully monitored.

The summer reshuffle saw Andrew Selous eventually appointed as prisons minister after several others reportedly turneddown the job. Prisons Inspector Nick Hardwick announced he will not reapply for his job next year, unsurprisingly in view of how he has been ignored. Probation Inspector Paul McDowell appears to have ridden out a controversy about potential conflicts of interest. 
Prison reform campaigns had successes with the overturning of bans on prisoners receiving, first steel string guitars and later on  books . It was confirmed that 17 year olds should be treated as children in police custody and improvements to the operation of the courts were recommended by Lord Carlile’s committee 
Next year will see the publication of the reviews into self-inflicted deaths and open prisons; the newly privatised probation system is due to operate fully from February. It will also of course see the election. A responsible new government will have the chance to reform not only the substance of prison policybut how it is paid for.  For the longer term, a Royal Commission might be needed to chart a reasonable and sustainable future for the whole penal system. 


  1. Very helpful (if profoundly depressing) round-up of the year Rob via your consistently informative posts.
    Merry Christmas

    1. Thanks Russell. Happy New Year to you; keep up your excellent blogging