Let’s use this opportunity to reform our prisons

1807 Howard League
structural unfairness is built into prison regimes

Writes Francis Crook


Prisons should be places of justice. It is extraordinary that this even needs saying. As the most extreme and absolute expression of the justice system, prisons should adhere to the very highest standards. It should not be ironic to say that prisons should epitomise justice. Yet there is an everyday structural unfairness built into prison regimes, compounded by prison overuse, overcrowding and violence. Far from being places that express, exhibit and deliver justice, prisons are the extreme end of injustice, inflicting unfairness in their structures for prisoners, staff and the wider public.

If we accept that for the forseeable future prisons are going to exist, we should expect them to deliver justice. It has become a cliché to say that we live in unprecedented times and that we do not want to go back to the old normal. Prisons need to change too.

Prisons have inconsistent processes, arbitrary decisions, bureaucratic delays, filth, violence and a machismo that fosters resentment. On a typical day nearly 20,000 men are crammed into cells designated for single occupancy and almost all prisoners will spend the majority of the day locked up.

Prisons discriminate against minorities and the vulnerable. People with learning disabilities are five times more likely to be subject to physical control by staff.


There is an everyday structural unfairness built into prison regimes, compounded by prison overuse, overcrowding and violence.

Frances Crook

Procedural injustice is ingrained in the policies. The Howard League has been campaigning to get rid of the punishment system that capriciously imposes additional days of incarceration, mostly for minor rule infringements. We found that over one thousand years of additional imprisonment were handed out in 2017.

There is a strong link between perceived unfairness in prisons high levels of violent disorder. Injustice, poor conditions and perceived injustice create a cycle of violence, recognised even by the chief inspector of prisons. He said in his report on Hewell prison in 2019 that the prisons was not meeting even basic needs like getting a phone call and this contributed to poor behaviour.

Before the Covid-19 lock down, violence had reached record levels with over 34,000 assaults. A prison dies every day by suicide, so-called natural causes, murder or in a category of unexplained deaths, mostly involving a cocktail of drugs.

One of the very thin glimmers of light in the prison system is that because the courts are not sitting, the in-flow of people into prison is reducing resulting in a drop in the population. As at 1 May there were just over 80,000 men, women and children in prison. The population is reducing by around 300 a week.

This provides an opportunity for real reform. Prisons don’t have to be places of squalor, inertia and violence. But they can only change if the population is radically reduced. This can be achieved by curtailing remands, ending the imposition of short sentence of less than a year and dealing with sentence inflation. Going back to the prison population we had in the time of Margaret Thatcher, who was hardly a softie, would take us to around 40,000. That number included virtually no children and around 1,000 women, still too many but a quarter of the number we have now.

This would get us to single cell occupancy. It would allow for staff to have time to be properly trained. There are plans in Scotland for all prison officers to be supported through a vocational degree. Caring for people in prison is a challenging job and staff should be remunerated, educated and managed commensurately.

Prisons should become places of purpose and justice. Assuming we will be having prisons for years to come, they should be the pinnacle of a justice system, not the dustbin.