Criminal neglect of our prisons

4 Apr 19

Halting short prison sentences will ease a major crisis in our prisons, argues Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Wera Hobhouse.

Handcuffs in a prison


Our prisons are in crisis. Prison overcrowding is so bad that they are failing at their central purpose: to prevent crime and keep communities safe by rehabilitating offenders.

A new report, from the justice select committee, confirms what the Liberal Democrats have been trying to tell this government for months – our prison system is not fit for purpose.

Look at overcrowding: 60% of prisons are over their capacity, with some holding 150% more inmates than they were built for. Obviously, this creates a huge strain on the system with many prisoners forced to share cells only big enough for one.

The strain on prisons also has a human cost. Recent statistics on deaths, assaults, and self-harm in prisons are shockingly high, and still increasing. Last year 325 people died in prison, including 92 suicides, and there were more than 50,000 recorded incidents of self-harm.

Every year there are 30,000 recorded assaults, including more than 10,000 assaults on prison staff. Drug abuse in prison has become endemic, with a fifth of all random drug tests coming out positive.

Tory government policies means that this crisis will only become more extreme, with the prison population projected to rise by 3,000 over the next 3 years.

What are the long-term consequences for everyone else? We are failing to rehabilitate. With record numbers of ex-prisoners going on to reoffend, it’s putting more strain on a system already stretched to breaking point. The system fails to protect society because it fails to reform inmates.

'Halting short prison sentences will reduce overcrowding in our prisons – allowing us to turn them into places of rehabilitation and recovery for those who truly need to be there.'

Exhausted and overworked prison staff are unable to cope, and this means that prisoners spend much more time locked in their cells, unable to work, receive training, education, healthcare and addiction treatment. As a result, more than half of all prisons were graded “poor” or “not sufficiently good” when judged on their ability to provide purposeful activity during research last year.

Short sentences are big part of this escalating problem: 4,800 inmates have been sentenced to less than 12 months. This is despite the Conservative government’s own evidence showing that a community sentence is far more effective at reducing reoffending than a short-term prison sentence.

The justice secretary and the prisons minister have both spoken about ending short sentences, but we have yet to see any further action from the Tories. Last year more than 50,000 people were given short-term prison sentences. Warm words from ministers will not solve this problem – especially as this government continues to push new legislation, like the Offensive Weapons Bill, that creates even more short-term sentences.

Liberal Democrats demand better. We need actions to back up the words. This Conservative government must urgently legislate for a presumption against short prison sentences – just as the Scottish Parliament did last year, under pressure from the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Using tough community sentences instead of short prison sentences reduces crime as people are less likely to reoffend.

It’s also far more cost-effective: it costs more than £100 a day to keep someone in prison. That money is better spent on the supervision and services that are vital for rehabilitation: housing, training, support into employment, healthcare and addiction treatment.

Halting short prison sentences will reduce overcrowding in our prisons – allowing us to turn them into places of rehabilitation and recovery for those who truly need to be there.

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