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The UK Redemption: Prisoners benefit from New Care and Well-being Legislation in England and Wales
“Squalid, dark with less and less facilities due to overcrowding,” said the BBC Radio 4 news on 10th November, 2015. Being an avid researcher of prisons, it’s a picture I’ve seen, over and over again. Squalid prisons do no-one any good, so to borrow the ‘redemption’ theme from the Stephen King novel and film of the same name...lets create a system where the redemption can be achieved WITHIN the system. It will be good for all of us.
Step back to a scene of carnage, violence and riots so severe that Britain was shaken to its core and on the verge of calling in the military. Riots so severe that a prison in one of our largest cities was reduced to rubble and copy-cat riots in a dozen other prisons pulsed shock-waves through the UK prison system.
It may be 25 years ago but the resonance is still keenly felt, whilst Lord Woolf’s enquiry recommending a shift towards more humane regimes has struggled against political ‘tough on crime’ imperatives. The antecedents to the riots saw overcrowding and dehumanising conditions with less and less facilities...
Paul Taylor, who led the Strangeways riot, responded to a sermon by the prison chaplain immediately prior to the start of the riot, by saying:
I would just like to say, right, that this man has just talked about the blessing of the heart and how a hardened heart can be delivered. No it cannot, not with resentment, anger and bitterness and hatred being instilled in people.
Taylor’s comment summarised the resentment and bitterness which was poisoning the UK prison system, and described the harsh environment in which prisoners lived. It gives a powerful insight into the experience of imprisonment. The experience of hard and unjust fare was unlikely to be consistent with regimes valuing prisoner well-being, although it clearly produced a sense of anger and solidarity on the part of prisoners united by defiance against the system...and society...
So what’s changed in the intervening years? Well they have seen plenty of plans. Prisoners have figured in some but not all of those which greatly affect them. They have often been excluded from services and planning processes.
Plans for Prisoners
Joint NHS/Local Authority population plans (excluding prisoners), plans for sentencing-policy, individual sentence plans, care plans, support plans, to say nothing of the life-plans being lived out before the door is slammed shut at Her Majesty’s pleasure and adds another ‘statistic’ to HM Prison Service’s roll-call. So many plans, so many prisoners! That’s 85,884 and counting as at Nov 2015, a figure that has roughly doubled since 1990. Overcrowding was one of the main causes cited for the 1990 riots and place stresses on the system, staff and prisoners alike. Pressure on places is still endemic and severe.
Count the Cost
At a cost of around £36,000 a year, each prisoner adds considerably to the taxpayer burden, while representing a poor investment in terms of re-offending outcomes or any other outcome measuring well-being, or quality of life, or health, or social integration. That’s a lot of wasted opportunity, a lot of tragic life-stories, a lot of re-offending, a lot of...all the wrong sort of outcomes. The figure for re-offending stands at just under 50% in 12 months post release, on average, but as high as 70% for multiple drug-users. More crime, more victims, more sentences and so it goes...round and round...
What does the Research Say?
In short it says that prisoners share many features of ‘disadvantage’, ‘dysfunction’, ‘disorder’, ‘disability’, ‘distress’, ‘discontinuity’, and ‘displacement’. It is against this nexus of problems that much offending behaviour arises and continues after release:
- Prisoners reflect the health and social problems of the disadvantaged communities from which they are drawn;
- Services in prison risk continued disadvantage through an inability to cope with the scale, type and complexity of prisoners problems;
- The majority of prisoners are young and many have dysfunctional family backgrounds with clear antecedents to mental health , behavioural and offending problems;
- Mentally disordered and learning disabled persons are over represented within the prison population;
- Psychological distress arises from traumatic life-experiences faced by many prisoners;
- Prisoners experience discontinuity of service provision especially upon release;
- Prisoners are socially displaced upon release, often leading to re-offending.
In addition prisoners often experience bullying, abuse and poor mental-state in prison and are poorly prepared for their release. The overcrowding pressures result in loss of the ‘dispensable’ parts of a prison’s regime, such as education and training programmes. Prison often breaks important relationships, tenancies, employment and other helpful community contacts. Previously provided health and social services are left at the prison gate. Whether they are reactivated at release is hit or miss.
In fairness to prisons, community based services can be difficult to engage and refer prisoners into. Perhaps there are perverse incentives for debarring challenging individuals from service caseloads? Maybe it’s just easier not to make reference to ex-prisoners in operational policies...that way they remain invisible. The accommodation issue appears particularly critical as stable accommodation enables other services and interventions to be organised.
Prisoners have historically been excluded from statutory population-based social care planning arrangements. That is all changing now. Section 14 of the new Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act, 2014 (reflecting arrangements in the Care Act in England), requires local authorities and the NHS to jointly carry out population assessments to provide an evidence-base upon which services can be planned and developed. These plans will now have to fully consider the needs of prisoners. In addition local authorities have a duty to support individual prisoner well-being throughout their imprisonment.
New Legislation, New Opportunities
The new legislation offers opportunities;
- To get all our prison related plans lined-up and facing in the same community-oriented direction;
- To include prisoners at the heart of population planning;
- To put well-being at the heart of sentence plans;
- To link prison and community services.
But further strategic-steps need to be taken to develop community-based sentencing alternatives, restorative-justice approaches, educational and therapeutic opportunities, and improved links to community services if this historic opportunity, and the redemption it offers us all, is to be seized.
For more facts and figures about prisoners and prison check out The Prison Reform Trust’s 2015 ‘Bromley Briefing’ available at;