Research into the experience of prisoners and prisons by De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) has contributed to a damning new report on the state of the UK’s prison estate.
The report, published on September 11th by the Commons Public Accounts Committee, condemns the “failure” of the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service to improve the condition of prisons.
Some 206 new prison places have been created out of a promised 10,000 promised by 2020, with many prisons crowded, unsafe and “dangerously high levels of violence and self-harm.”
Key findings included:
• Higher-risk inmates were being detained in low security jails
• The Government was unable to demonstrate prison conditions were adequate for women
• A backlog of maintenance work will cost more than £900m to address and means 500 prison places are unable to be used every year
The Committee says that “the Ministry has once again exposed taxpayers to higher than expected costs as a result of inadequate planning, unrealistic assumptions and poor performance whilst managing facilities within prisons.”
DMU researchers gave evidence to the committee about their work, particularly into the experiences of female inmates, which has been highlighted in the report.
Victoria Knight, director of the Prison and Probation Research Hub, said: “Our response to the parliamentary request excellently captures the research in the Prison and Probation Research Hub we do here at DMU.
“Our work has real life impact and we work closely with those in the criminal justice system. This puts us in a unique position to garner interest from governmental committees like these.
“Collectively we are committed to reducing the reliance on imprisonment and that all people in the criminal justice system have a voice and their needs are heard and met. This acknowledgement is credit to these commitments we do as a thriving research community here at DMU.
“Covid-19 has shone a light on the deprivations people experience in the criminal justice system. Sometimes it takes a crisis for things to heard much more clearly – sadly. We shall keep a close eye on the responses of this evidence and respond enthusiastically in pursuing fairness and compassion in our prisons and probation sector.”
Lucy Baldwin, senior lecturer in Criminology, said the report acknowledges that female prisons have been the poor relation in terms of spending and investment.
She said: “It was wrong that the £81.5 million raised from the sale of HMP Holloway, was used to improve the male estate rather than investing in the community services proposed by the Female Offender Strategy.
“It is recognised that women’s pathways in and out of crime are distinct from males and as such need to be appropriately funded and addressed. To do justice to women criminal justice responses need to adopt a gendered response. As such, there needs to be greater investment in community alternatives to custody for women, whilst simultaneously investing in and ensuring women’s prisons are therapeutic and rehabilitative as opposed to simply punitive.”
Prison conditions and facilities play a crucial role in supporting prisoners to stay away from crime on their release and reduce the £18.1 billion cost to the economy of reoffending each year. Despite the PAC’s recommendations in May 2019, there is still no sign of a cross-government strategy for reducing reoffending.
Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “The scale of failure, in our prisons and in the disastrous probation reforms, is really quite staggering. The apparent disregard for the position of women in prisons is just another indictment of a clearly broken system.
“The Ministry is still reeling from the long-term consequences of its unrealistic 2015 Spending Review settlement, but our whole society is bearing the financial and human cost of sustained underinvestment. Even now, we are not convinced MoJ and HMPPS have the ingredients for an effective, sustainable long-term strategy.
“We now expect a set of reports to be made to us over the coming months, assessing the realistic costs of their mistakes to date and how to fix them, and a credible new plan for a working prison estate and system that can reduce re-offending – not just lock people in to this cycle of violence and harm.”