The dire state of UK prisons puts us all in danger- what can Labour do?

It was quite the return to Westminster after the summer recess. Record hospital waiting times, schools threatening to crumble around us and the Cinderella of public services – prisons – gave us a jail break. The escape in a chef’s uniform, under a catering van from HMP Wandsworth by Daniel Khalife created shock waves. It also brought the austerity-driven desolation of our prisons to the attention of a wider audience and highlighted the all-too-real consequences of ignoring prisons and prisoners. 

Our whole justice system is creaking, close to breaking point or in some cases clearly broken, and the public are all too aware of the mountain Mark Rowley has to climb to restore trust in the Met Police. The chronically under-staffed probation service failed to recall Jordan McSweeney to prison in June 2022 when he repeatedly missed his appointments: he then went on to murder Zara Aleena. From police, to the courts, to prisons and then to probation, sorting out our failing justice system has to be a priority for an incoming Labour government, to keep everybody safe.

The dire state of UK prisons

Prisons are the most hidden part of this ailing system. Currently our prisons hold about 87,000 people, which is double the 1993 prison population, whilst the Crime Survey of England and Wales demonstrates crime has fallen considerably over the last three decades. Within the prison population, a third of women and a quarter of men have been in local authority care; this rises to two thirds and a half with young offenders (under 21). The 2021 inspection of HMP Wandsworth noted around two thirds of prisoners in the prison accessed substance misuse services and a third, around 500 people, were referred to mental health services every month. In women’s prisons 57% of women have experienced domestic abuse and over half were the victims of childhood abuse. 65% of people sentenced in 2020-21 were sentenced for a non-violent offence. In the most recent Ministry of Justice reporting, prison suicide rose in one year by 26%, with 88 suicides in the previous 12 months. Self-harm increased by 11% in the previous year, with 59,722 incidents: rates of self-harm in the women’s estate was 11 times that of the male. The picture is bleak.

Staffing issues were front and centre in the prison break story of last week. High vacancy rates, high staff attrition and sickness all contribute to dysfunctional prisons. HMP Wandsworth was built in 1851 with a capacity of 900 men. Today it holds over 1600 people and the local MP’s parliamentary questions revealed that overnight, there can be as few as seven officer staff on duty. The 2021 inspection noted, ‘There were not enough staff to make sure prisoners received even the most basic regime’ in this ‘crumbling, overcrowded, vermin-infested prison’. With prisons old and new failing to reduce reoffending and keep us all safe, what should an incoming Labour government do?

1. Reduce the prison population to reduce crime

Good relationships are absolutely key to humane prisons that release citizens with something to contribute from their gates. The current staffing ratios make this near impossible. Rather than building new prison places, at a cost to the tax payer, the population could be modestly, safely reduced, which would also ease overcrowding and alleviate squalid living conditions. It currently costs around £48,000 per prisoner per year. Straightforward ways to reduce the prison population include: reviewing all prisoners on no-longer-used Indeterminate Public Protection (IPP) sentences. This may sound scary, but just last week an article revealed one IPP prisoner was jailed in 2012 for phone theft. There are currently almost 3000 IPP prisoners. For lower threshold crimes, courts could make greater use of robust community sentences – the Ministry of Justice’s own evidence demonstrates they outperform custodial sentences, cost a fraction of incarceration and avoid exposure to criminogenic prisons. A bolder move, which made progress under David Gauke’s tenure as justice secretary, would be to abolish short prison sentences (less than three or six months). This would prevent extreme revolving door cases (seven days in, out, another seven days in) taking up staff time and capacity, whilst being too short to deliver meaningful interventions.

2. Care for staff to improve prison safety

The high staff attrition and sickness rates tell their own story. A reduced prison population would ease stress on staff and create some much needed margin in the system. Staff pay should be benchmarked against those in comparable frontline roles like police and firefighters. Those in prison healthcare should be offered financial incentivisation to work in prisons, so staff aren’t haemorrhaged to home counties hospitals. Prison healthcare should become a core part of nurse and medic training, as well as a core specialism available for rotation to junior doctors and nurse trainees. 

3. Implement the Lammy review

There are 35 excellent recommendations from one of our own, ready to roll, to address the systemic racism in the system that results in the over-representation of people of colour in prisons.

4. Greater use of restorative justice

Taking a restorative justice approach benefits victims and reduces the frequency of reoffending by 14%. Restorative Justice Council and Victim Support analysis showed that using restorative justice in 70,000 cases involving adult offenders would mean £185 million savings to the criminal justice system over two years, through reductions in reoffending alone.

Prisons and those living and working in them need our attention. Our Labour values of fairness, justice, equality and opportunity demand we stand in solidarity with all those affected by our broken system. We must work collectively to improve all public services, to enable the change our communities so desperately need and ensure the safety of us all.


If you enjoyed this piece, see Sara’s previous blog IWD: The Power of Women in Local Government.