04/07/2013 13:15 BST | Updated 03/09/2013 06:12 BST

Can Chris Grayling Rehabilitate Our Ailing Prison System?


Do we expect too much of our overcrowded prisons? As the Justice Secretary announces plans to re-designate around 70 prisons across England and Wales as resettlement prisons, a new iPad app launched by the Prison Reform Trust reveals that massive cuts in prison staff and budgets are placing overcrowded prisons under unprecedented strain and undermining government plans to transform rehabilitation.

The government is currently embarking on one of the largest change programme of the criminal justice system in recent history. The Offender Rehabilitation Bill, which receives its third reading in the House of Lords next week, proposes mandatory supervision for all those sentenced to custody for any period over one day and up to two years. The impact assessment of the Bill reveals that around 13,000 offenders will be recalled or committed to custody as a result of the proposals, giving a prison places increase of around 600 additional places per year.

These changes are taking place at a time when the National Offender Management Service has to make overall resource savings of almost 25% in real terms by 2014-15. The recent spending review saw a further 10% reduction in the Ministry of Justice's budget. Such significant savings are already having an impact on staffing levels, with the number of prison officers employed falling by 7% between 31 August 2010 and 31 August 2012 over a period when prison numbers have remained stable.

At a time of budget cuts and pressure on resources, it is hard to understand why the government is focusing on prison as a gateway to rehabilitation for over 50,000 petty offenders. Resettlement and rehabilitation do matter but, until and unless you reserve prison for serious and violent offenders, you cannot hope to cut sky-high reoffending rates or maintain safe and decent regimes.

The Prisons Inspectorate has raised concerns about whether there are sufficient resources available to provide a safe and secure service and do anything useful with people whilst they are in prison. "Resources are now stretched very thinly...there is a pretty clear choice for politicians and policymakers - reduce prison populations or increase prison budgets," the chief inspector has said.

Between June 1993 and June 2012 the prison population in England and Wales increased by 41,800 prisoners to over 86,000. Although the prison population has stabilised in recent months, there are still 6,092 more people in the prison system than it is designed and built to hold. On 31 May 2013, there were 72 out of 124 establishments over the Prison Service's Certified Normal Accommodation: "the good, decent standard of accommodation that the Service aspires to provide all prisoners". Take HMP Wandsworth, built to hold 730 men, now a warehouse for 1,226.

Our prison system is flooded with petty offenders, addicts, and people who are mentally ill or have a learning disability. Fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care, but looked after children make up 30% of boys and 44% of girls in custody.

No wonder prison has such a poor record for reducing reoffending. Nearly half of adults are reconvicted within one year of being released. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 58%. Reoffending by all recent ex-prisoners costs the economy between £9.5 and £13 billion per year. As much as three quarters of this cost can be attributed to former short-sentenced prisoners: some £7-10 billion a year.

By contrast, court ordered community sentences are more effective by 8.3% at reducing one-year proven reoffending rates than custodial sentences of less than 12 months for similar offenders. Given the pace and scale of change, Ministers focused on developing the justice market could easily lose sight of the solutions that lie outside of prison bars in health, housing and employment. Imprisonment is a punishment of last resort, not a capacious social service.

Prison: The Facts (Bromley Briefings online) is available as a free iPad app from the App store

Click here for a PDF version