Hard time: the paradox of current imprisonment policy

Roger Grimshaw
Wednesday, 17 March 2021

We are now used to gloomy reports about prison conditions from sources close to the ground, and the duration and impact of current prisoner lockdowns leads to even more disturbing assessments.  

The recent thematic review by HM Inspectorate of Prisons contains a chilling comment by Charlie Taylor, the new Chief Inspector. 

The cumulative effect of such prolonged and severe restrictions on prisoners’ mental health and well-being is profound. The lack of support to reduce reoffending and help prisoners address their risk of serious harm to the public does not fill me with hope for the longer term.

The results of the current conditions do not just impact on prisoners, they also severely intensify the challenges for prison staff faced with more and more fraught interactions with prisoners, whether vulnerable or not. Increased time spent in a cell will only heighten the demands on the professional and communication skills of staff, and draw attention to the shortage of opportunity and hope. 

Turning to the proposed sentencing changes in the current bill before Parliament makes for bewildering reading; it is as if the Chief Inspector’s words had never been uttered. The extension of time served by prisoners stands out as a message with precisely the opposite inflection. 

By itself the tightening and hardening of sentencing has nothing to offer in terms of changing the quality of the prison experience; it simply dictates more of the same. Moreover, as comments have indicated, it will do nothing at all to address the chronic overcrowding which blights that experience on a daily basis. Indeed, prior to these proposals, it has been estimated that a slightly longer extension of time served in prison (75 per cent, compared with the proposed 66 per cent) for male violent and sexual offenders would increase the prison population by as much as six per cent over five years. The impacts for the disproportionately high number of people from Black and other racialized minorities in prison have also been insufficiently assessed.  

In such unpromising circumstances, it may be that even modest suggestions present a thought-provoking challenge: 

  • Should the powers of the Inspectorate of Prisons be enhanced so that they can at least instigate a process of closing prisons to new intake until conditions are improved to an acceptable standard?  
  • Is it time for a prisons covenant to be proposed which safeguards the interests of staff and prisoners alike and makes good on the better aspirations of the Prison Service? 

The promises of thousands more prison places in the future will simply extend the temptation to use imprisonment as a sop to demands for increased public safety and the protection of the vulnerable. The impulse to improve conditions for communities and support struggling families will be weakened. 

In the long term, the infinite extension of prison capacity to suit sentencers’ judgements and meet the wishes of governments is self-defeating. It will only be curbed and reversed if policymakers start to acknowledge fully the reality of imprisonment and act responsibly in the interests of us all.