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Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust

Most people would say they know something about prison. They recognise the abiding austere image of the barred cell window or, in contrast, the holiday camp, beloved by the tabloid press, where old lags are reported to laze at taxpayers' expense. Yet, despite our zest for incarceration, few really know what life is like beyond the locked iron gates.

Prisons are our least visible, most beleaguered public service. At the close of the year, 70 of 117 prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded. As prison numbers soared to over 85,000 in 2015, drastic budget cuts saw staff numbers plummet. Serious assaults rose and purposeful activity fell to highest and lowest recorded levels respectively. The facts and figures about the state of our prisons and the state of people in them are carefully laid out and referenced in our Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile, Autumn 2015.

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On 17 December, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the revised UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners—the Nelson Mandela Rules.

Whilst not legally binding, the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, adopted sixty years ago, provide guidelines for international and domestic law for citizens held in prisons and other forms of custody; as well as providing the framework for inspection and monitoring of prisoner treatment.

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People held in segregation in prisons experience impoverished regimes with poor levels of purposeful activity. More than half suffer from three or more mental health problems, an in-depth research report published today (17 December 2015) by the Prison Reform Trust reveals. The report finds that segregation units and close supervision centres (CSCs) entail social isolation, inactivity, and increased control of prisoners—a combination proven to harm mental health and wellbeing.

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An explosion in the use of indeterminate sentences and the increased use of long determinate sentences are key drivers behind the near doubling of prison numbers in the past two decades. The latest edition of the Bromley Briefing Prison Factfile, published today (30 November) by the Prison Reform Trust, reveals the cost of our addiction to imprisonment in wasted time, money and lives.

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