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Revolving Doors Agency appears on BBC Newsnight to discuss the prisons crisis

On Wednesday evening, Paula Harriott, Revolving Doors’ Head of Involvement, appeared on BBC Newsnight to provide expert commentary on the crisis in prisons. The current situation is multifactorial and has been a long time in the making, but there are some underlying causes around which there is a degree of consensus.

Prisons are understaffed, with significant numbers of often more experienced staff leaving in recent years. The Ministry of Justice has recognised this and is trying to recruit new staff and increase the head count. This is welcome, but exchanging experienced staff with new ones poses risks and challenges, and bodies such as the Prison Governors’ Association have raised concerns about the thoroughness of the recruitment process and the quality of the training offered to new recruits. The shortage of prison officers causes problems that run throughout the system. It means more prisons spending more time in restricted regime and lockdown. This in turn means that people in prison often find it difficult to access the services that will help them to turn their lives around upon release, including health, skills and education services, and resettlement. Incidents, including self-harm and suicide, and disturbances, have been increasing.

The problems with prisons aren’t limited to staffing and associated operational issues. The way they’re used is problematic. Almost everyone sentenced to prison will one day come out, and roughly half of everyone sentenced to immediate custody in a year will be released within 12 months. The withdrawn Prison and Courts Bill would have established in law that prisons are places of reform and rehabilitation, not just punishment. At the moment, we have establishments which are unable to accommodate people safely, unable to offer the health and rehabilitative services that people need, and that in many cases are unable to resettle people effectively upon release.

Prisons are overcrowded, understaffed and under-resourced. Recent reports, one after another, have created a sense of a crisis in need of rapid and effective solutions – that’s probably not an inaccurate reading of the situation. But while there’s been a recent deterioration, it’s been clear for some years that we risked ending up in the current situation. The number of people being sentenced to prison hasn’t changed much, but those who are tend to be given longer sentences. This has put additional pressure on the prison system, and has probably done little to reduce reoffending.

Reoffending continues to be a major problem in England, but is a problem that has solutions some to hand – community sentences, for example, are more effective and cost effective than prison for many types of offender, but the use of them has collapsed – mental health treatment requirements in particular. Short prison sentences of 12 months or less are costly and disrupt lives, but crucially are also associated with earlier reoffending and a higher reoffending rate than community sentences. Indeed, David Strang, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, has recently called for the use of short prison sentences to be ended; sentences of three months or less are already generally prohibited in Scotland. 

Quick fixes are often disparaged, but we need a quick fix now as the situation is dangerous. But we also need to think more carefully about how the criminal justice system as a whole – from the police through to courts, prisons and probation – can change the way it works to reduce crime and reoffending, improve community safety, and offer a better, more rehabilitative and reformative service to people who do offend.

You can see the Newsnight episode here, with the report on prisons on first. Paula Harriott’s interview starts at 6 minutes.