The shame of Britain’s prison system

Yesterday I went to London to a meeting of the Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) which was set up in the 1990s following a clash in Synod about how the Church Commissioners were making investments. It has done some really good work, not only in thinking carefully about complex issues of investment ethics, but also in lobbying industries on ethical practice, and pioneering ethical thinking about investment amongst other investors.

But the most fascinating part of yesterday’s meeting came at lunch time. We were saying farewell to two long-standing members of the group, and to do so we had lunch at The Clink Restaurant in Brixton’s Category C prison. The project, which is a charity supported through donations, Government funding, and its own income, was set up to address the chronic issue of reoffending in the UK prison system.

The issue of reoffending has become one of the most pressing challenges facing society today. 45.2% of adults reoffend within one year of being released. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 57.5%. It is now recognised that the record levels of inmates in prison is not helping to reduce crime.

The sole aim of The Clink Charity is to reduce reoffending rates of ex-offenders by training prisoners and placing graduates into employment in the hospitality and horticulture industries upon release.  Since launching, the charity has achieved incredible results. The latest statistics are currently being independently examined and will be published later this year.

Those working in The Clink receive training towards an NVQ level 2 qualification, and learn how to work with others, take responsibility, and get used to a customer environment. In between courses (as a special visiting group), we heard from people involved in the scheme, and the difference it was making. ‘Peter’ (not his real name) had spent most of the last 20 years in jail, had never worked, and all his friends were involved in crime. He was on an indeterminate sentence (a UK practice that has repeatedly been ruled illegal and a breach of human rights but continues to grow) but now that he had been working at The Clink and had a good record, for the first time he had a chance of parole. The Clink partners with other agencies to help resettle released prisoners, and the one at Brixton (there are Clink restaurants in four prisons around the UK) works in close partnership with a church in Lambeth North which runs a resettlement programme.

The achievements are impressive. The Clink has already had 1,000 prisoners go through its scheme, and for those who have completed it, reoffending has dropped to 7%. It aims to train a further 1,000 each year. It is estimated that our high levels of reoffending cost the UK economy more than £10 billion a year; if we could address this then within two years we would have saved the equivalent of our disputed Brexit ‘divorce’ bill. But it is not just a financial problem; it is a personal tragedy for those caught up in a cycle of crime, prison, and the violence and drug dependency that often goes with it. If you are released on a Friday evening, with £42.50 in your hand, no job, nowhere to live, and the only people you know are those with whom you committed crime, is it any wonder we have such high rights of reoffending? The Prison Reform Trust highlights the problem in this area:

Prison has a poor record for reducing reoffending—44% of adults are reconvicted within one year of release. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 59%.

48% of women are reconvicted within one year of leaving prison. This rises to 61% for sentences of less than 12 months and to 78% for women who have served more than 11 previous custodial sentences.

Nearly seven in 10 children (69%) sent to prison are reconvicted within a year of release—this rises to 78% for those serving sentences of less than six months.

Short prison sentences are less effective than community sentences at reducing reoffending. People serving prison sentences of less than 12 months had a reoffending rate seven percentage points higher than similar offenders serving a community sentence—they also committed more crimes.

Reoffending by all recent ex-prisoners costs the economy between £9.5 and £13 billion annually. As much as three quarters of this cost can be attributed to former short-sentenced prisoners: some £7–10bn a year.

The Prison Reform Trust fact file outlines just how badly our prison system is failing. As prisoner numbers continue to grow, and understaffing continues, prisoners spend more time locked in cells. Overcrowding and lack of support means growing levels of violence and self-harm, exacerbating already high levels of mental health problems for prisoners.

26% of women and 16% of men said they had received treatment for a mental health problem in the year before custody.

25% of women and 15% of men in prison reported symptoms indicative of psychosis. The rate among the general public is about 4%.

Suicide rates are significantly higher in custody than amongst the general population. In 2015 the rate of self-inflicted deaths amongst the prison population was 120 per 100,000 people, amongst the general population it is 10.8 per 100,000 people.

70% of people who died from self-inflicted means whilst in prison had already been identified with mental health needs.

There are disproportionate numbers in prison from ethnic minority groups, and 30% of prisoners have a learning difficulty or disability.

What can you do? The biblical command to ‘remember those in prison as if you were with them’ (Hebrews 13.3) does not have a direct carry-over to us, in the sense that prison had a different function the first century from what it does today. However, this is part of a wider injunction to have compassion and empathy, to think of ‘those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering’. And God’s concern for justice (rather ironically) should challenge us to action on our prison system—which is widely criticised for being unhelpful, unfair and unjust—even to the point of being illegal in some of its practices in international law.

Here are some practical things you can do:

  1. Read the Prison Reform Trust fact file.
  2. Join the Prison Reform Trust.
  3. Write to your MP about the unjust treatment of prisoners, lack of access to meaningful activity and rehabilitation, and high rates of reoffending. Ask him or her to ask the Home Secretary about this.
  4. Contact the chaplaincy in your local prison and ask what you can do to help.
  5. If you have a Clink Restaurant near you, go and visit and support their work.

The prison system as it is operating in the UK is a shame on us as a nation, perpetrates injustice, and damages society. It does not work, and it needs to change.

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12 thoughts on “The shame of Britain’s prison system”

  1. Thanks for this piece, Ian. Having spent some time in a prison recently (albeit not as an inmate) and having eaten at one of the branches of the Clink a couple of years back, I think this is really important. Suspect it’s time I joined the PRT so thank you for the nudge. Linked to some of this, I’m pleased that Chris Grayling’s hideous no-books policy crumbled.

    Slightly surprised at your use of the Hebrews text tho… aren’t there enough similarities to give it force today? What about “I was in prison and you visited me…”?

    In friendship, Blair

  2. Another thing you can do is support the Message Trust in Manchester. The reoffending rate among the prisoners they work with is 10% and they do follow up work on release to give people skills to take them forward and away from reoffending.

  3. Consider volunteering for a local Community Chaplaincy project supporting people leaving prison as they resettle in the community. See the Community Chaplaincy Association for details of projects in your area.

  4. It is worth remembering the extraordinarily effective initiative called ‘Kairos’ which was supported through a number of prisons, and which cut re-offending to nearly nil. Its basis was Christian but anybody could become part of it, the prisons converted separate wings for those involved, and the essential parts of this ‘programme’ included ‘Kairos Outside’ which self-funded to provide Christian Cursillo-based weekends and consistent support for the families of prisoners, in order that they had all the support needed at home to encourage a different life.
    This was highly effective, and highly praised by prison governors.
    Why did it not continue?
    The *Chaplain General* – of all people – decided unilaterally that it was a *Christian* initiative and as there were no comparable initiatives for other faiths, it should be stopped. It was.

    • There are 4200 religions in the world. And anyone can invent a new one any second. If all are not represented, they must have none represented.

      Let’s do the same with sport. Unless all sports are offered by the prison, none is able to be offered.

  5. Or consider joining an Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) in a prison or detention centre near your home?

    Members have unrestricted access to their local prison or immigration detention centre at any time and can talk to any prisoner or detainee they wish to, out of sight and hearing of a members of staff if necessary. A typical monitoring visit, for example, might include time spent in the kitchens, workshops, accommodation blocks, recreation areas, healthcare centre and chaplaincy.

    Board members also play an important role in dealing with problems inside the establishment. If a prisoner or detainee has an issue that he or she has been unable to resolve through the usual internal channels, he or she can put in a confidential request to see a member of the IMB. Problems might include concerns over lost property, visits from family or friends, special religious or cultural requirements, or even serious allegations such as bullying.

    More information here:

      • Ouch. The moment that wretched, inaccurate neologism “whistleblower” is associated with an institution, you know it’s toothless. (A referee has substantial powers: “whistleblowers” are defined by their powerlessness; the absurd phrase is used to mask the ugly reality that they’re informants, a class of person universally despised.)

        Inspectors with powers may do some good, as can lawsuits, but they’re bandaids, if that. Systemic improvement will only come when society reaches a consensus about what prisons are for. At present, they’re pointless holding pens, largely run by their most violent inmates. No wonder so toxic an environment’s a university of crime.

  6. The situation in many prisons is truly dire, falling below minimum human rights standards and making rehabilitation even harder. Drug-taking and bullying are often rife, leaving vulnerable prisoners at grave risk, though some officers do their best in very difficult circumstances. Thanks for a timely article.

  7. Prisons in England, along with America and much of the rest of the Anglosphere, have for decades been the hostages of ideological stalemate. They’re purposeless, lawless warehouses ’cause society’s torn over their purpose: is it to reform; or impose retribution?

    I suspect that progress is only gonna be possible if reformers accept that something along the lines of the Nordic model’s unacceptable in Anglosphere nations that prioritize retribution. They’ve tried logical arguments for decades, pointing to lower recidivism rates, and far fewer future victims, but society just doesn’t want to hear it.

    That being so, a new model that combines reform and retribution is the only way forward I can see. Even if it’s not the Nordic model, it’s gotta be better than concrete warzones run by gangs.


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