Opinion

Fixing prison overcrowding may not be a vote-winner – but it's essential to keep people safe

Prison overcrowding is at breaking point and ministers have decided to release some prisoners two months early to ease the situation. Failing to fix the situation long-term will leave communities counting the cost, writes Darren Nicholas

prison overcrowding

The cost per prisoner each year to the taxpayer stands at £46,696 – well above the average UK salary so solving prison overcrowding is vital both financially and socially. Image: Andrea Cappiello / Unsplash

Recently the Big Issue covered the pressing concern of overcrowding in prisons. The issue is sadly not new with many prisoners serving sentences in inhumane conditions. Security issues partially caused by overcrowding were also brought to the forefront last year, after a prisoner escaped HMP Wandsworth under a delivery van.

Projections from the Ministry of Justice estimate that in two years’ time the prison population will be a third higher than the 78,058 counted in 2021. Twenty thousand new delayed prison places are only set to be delivered by 2030 – at a construction cost of £4bn.

Prison overcrowding may not seem a palatable vote-winner amid a cost of living crisis, but the situation is at breaking point and a functioning criminal justice system is essential to keep communities safe.

Aside from capacity and living condition issues in prisons in the United Kingdom, they are expensive to run. According to the most recent figures, the cost per prisoner each year to the taxpayer stands at £46,696 – well above the average UK salary. Given more than half of people who serve sentences of less than 12 months reoffend within a year of release, prisons are also ineffective in rehabilitating those imprisoned for lower-level crimes.

Once someone has been incarcerated, it is exceedingly difficult to rebuild their life and reintegrate back into their community on release. Many people leaving prison struggle for employment, adequate housing and support, after serving their sentence. The consequence of this lack of support is a revolving door of crime, prison, and more victims.

Furthermore, crimes committed after leaving short-term prison often relate to the purchase of drugs. More emphasis must be placed on prison-based treatment to better support existing treatment professionals who are under significant pressure managing large caseloads. Without addressing the root cause of offending through treatment, how can it be expected that the same person will not reoffend?

A simple drug possession offence will not result in a custodial sentence, but a criminal record can be the start of a slippery slope. A possession charge can have enormous consequences including the loss of career prospects and impact on visa status. Supporting evidence shows over one in five reoffend within a year for drug offences, highlighting the need for proactive rehabilitative approaches.

There is however, an alternative to the revolving door which is so hard to escape. This approach requires collaborative working, upstream strategies, and innovative thinking.

At Cranstoun, the charity which I work for, we encompass a Whole System approach to criminal justice which focuses on addressing root causes of offending in order to reduce the chance of a re-offence.

We co-deliver a range of criminal justice services with a number of police and crime commissioners in England to address this issue by providing a range of options. From schemes that divert people towards drug education instead of arrest, to drug treatment and other referral services in custody suites, and interventions in HMP Birmingham – we aim to provide an opportunity to address the cause of offending at every stage of the criminal justice process.

The West Midlands police and crime commissioner, Simon Foster, describes our joined-up approach as “not only helping us break the cycle of crime and giving people their lives back, it is also helping save the taxpayer money. It is having a real impact – because it is tackling crime and that means fewer victims of crime.”

Schemes which divert people away from the criminal justice system are proven to deliver a range of benefits and are delivered in various forms in various places in the UK, such as the Checkpoint scheme in Durham.

Results from existing diversion schemes show significantly reduced reoffending rates, increased numbers of people with substance dependencies engaging with treatment, and a large cost saving for the taxpayer. Not only does diversion deliver all of these benefits, but it can help to break the cycle of reoffending and reduce the number of people serving sentences in overcrowded prisons.

Darren Nicholas is assistant director of criminal justice at social justice charity Cranstoun.

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