Letters and phone calls from prisoners reveal that, six months on from their introduction, new prison rules are undermining fairness and rehabilitation behind bars
Changes to prison rules introduced six months ago which include a ban on prisoners receiving books and other basic items are eliciting a strong sense of injustice in prisons and undermining opportunities for effective rehabilitation, a new briefing by the Prison Reform Trust reveals.

Contact from prisoners to the Prison Reform Trust’s advice and information service regarding the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme have nearly trebled in the past year since the changes were announced.

Prisoners in contact with the organisation report that the new scheme is limiting family contact and opportunities for education and learning - all factors which are vital to reduce people’s risk of reoffending. Concerns have been raised about the impact of the revised scheme on the mental health and wellbeing of prisoners. The impact of the changes to the IEP scheme is being monitored by the Ministerial Board on Deaths in Custody.
The changes, which were announced last April and introduced on 1 November 2013, include a ban on all sentenced prisoners receiving parcels such as books and other basic items, except for a one-off parcel at the start of their sentence and in exceptional circumstances. A new standardised list has been introduced from which prisoners now have to purchase items from their own, often meagre, prison wages.
One prisoner said:
“I am about to start a distance learning course. A friend of mine has done all these courses and is fully qualified and was going to send me all his books but we can’t have books sent in anymore.”
A prisoner said:
“The prison service/government keep saying how important it is to maintain family ties. So they put phone prices up, send us miles away from our families and stop us from having stamps and writing materials posted in. My partner used to send them all in for me so we can all stay in touch as much as possible and that has now come to a sudden stop and now my daughter wants to know why her daddy can’t write to her anymore ... I know that if I lose my family because of this lack of contact, it will be straight back to square one and I know I will go straight back to crime as I’ll have nothing left to lose.”
A mother of a prisoner spoke about the impact of the ban at a recent meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Penal Affairs Group:
“We have heard a lot about the ban on books in recent weeks. But this is the one tangible link you can have with your family: … ‘I thought you might enjoy this – I did’ or ‘a few crosswords to keep you busy’. This prohibition isn’t only about reducing opportunities for learning. It also removes the last possibility of a gift, a tangible piece of human warmth.”
The new rules make it harder for people to progress IEP status and easier to be downgraded to the basic level. Prisoners must now “demonstrate a commitment towards their rehabilitation” by engaging in purposeful activity, behaving well and helping other prisoners. The rules introduce an automatic IEP review for bad behaviour, with a presumption of downgrading.
It is important that prison staff are able to provide opportunities to enable prisoners to use their time in constructive and meaningful ways. However, as the Chief Inspector of Prisons has highlighted, rates of purposeful activity in prisons have “plummeted” over the last year with the Inspectorate reporting the worst outcomes for six years. This makes it difficult for prisoners to demonstrate a “commitment to rehabilitation” under the new scheme.
In particular, the Prison Reform Trust is concerned that the changes are having a disproportionate impact on many elderly and disabled prisoners who cannot demonstrate a “commitment to rehabilitation” under the rules by engaging in purposeful activity or helping other prisoners. The new scheme is meant to take account of mitigating factors including a lack of operational resources or the impact of disabilities on an individual’s ability to progress IEP status.

However, one disabled prisoner contacted the Prison Reform Trust to highlight the impact the changes to the IEP scheme had had on him:

“I am wheelchair bound and dependent on my carer. My enhanced was taken away. Reason given, I am not helping others.”
Another prisoner said:
“The inmates who are now on basic are not trouble causers, they are people who cannot read, write, speak English very well and are well behaved people.”
One prisoner described how the new scheme had impacted on his sense of the fairness of the prison regime:
“From being a settled lifer, working years to gain trust and respect from a difficult enough system, I find myself regarded as nothing. The basic regime is inhumane; it will give me just over an hour out of my cell. For years I have contributed to our community, always worked. My behaviour has been impeccable and I have mentored many inmates in several fields. Now in one fell swoop Chris Grayling has taken everything from me.”
A disproportionate number of prisoners who harm themselves or take their own lives in prison are on the basic regime. Between 2007 and 2012, 8% of self-inflicted deaths investigated by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman were of prisoners on the basic level. This is considerably higher than the national average percentage of prisoners on the basic regime (2%). Since the introduction of the changes, the Prison Reform Trust has heard from a number of prisoners reporting significant mental distress as a result of being placed on the basic regime.
One prisoner said:
“Prisoners who have been in the system for many years are having their IEP status reduced to basic. Some including myself have gone from enhanced to basic. My behaviour is impeccable, no adjudications, I work and help on the wing ...I was judged in court, I am now being judged again ... I have no one outside and a simple thing like a TV is a window to the open world and that's been taken away. Depression is creeping in and unless the powers that be want to see an increase in deaths [and] suicides in custody then they have to amend this scheme fast.”
One elderly prisoner said:
“I am 65 years old and work full time or else I won’t have any money. Really I am one of the lucky ones. Some of the prisoners are disabled 70, 80 years old, locked behind their doors, no TVs, some have no radio, banged up 5.30 evening until 10, 11 am next day with no hot water, not opening for hot water for a drink. Not opening for them to go for medication, resulting in one man being taken to hospital. Another has self harmed.”

The changes create a new entry level between standard and basic. Restrictions include a lower rate of pay and a requirement to wear a prison uniform. A disproportionate amount of self-harm occurs in the early stages of custody, when prisoners are generally at their most vulnerable. In 2012, 16% of self-harm incidents occurred during an individual’s first month in prison. A punitive new entry level which marks people out from the rest of the prison population by putting them in uniforms may well increase incidences of self-harm.

Following criticism of the new scheme by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, leading authors, prison reformers and commentators from across the political spectrum, the briefing calls for an urgent review of the IEP scheme with a focus on ensuring opportunities for effective rehabilitation and the safe and decent treatment of people in prison.
Commenting, Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:
“Fairness and decency are the watchwords of a civilized prison system. Good professional relationships between staff and prisoners and clear communication, including giving reasons for rules, help to maintain a safe, disciplined environment. Now the legitimacy of prison regimes risk being undermined by low staffing levels, new mean and petty restrictions and a developing culture of punishment without purpose.”
A copy of the report Punishment without purpose: the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme and its impact on fairness, decency and rehabilitation behind bars, is available here
The Prison Reform Trust’s advice and information service, supported by the Hadley Trust, responds to approximately 5,000 prisoners and their families and prison staff each year.
What is the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme?
The Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme was introduced in 1995 and is an essential tool of prison management. It enables people to move through defined levels in order to:
  • encourage responsible behaviour by prisoners
  • encourage effort and achievement in work and other constructive activity by prisoners
  • encourage sentenced prisoners to engage in sentence planning and benefit from activities designed to reduce reoffending
  • create a more disciplined, better-controlled and safer environment for prisoners and staff.
These aims are achieved by ensuring that privileges above the minimum are earned by prisoners through good behaviour and performance and are removed if they fail to maintain acceptable standards. When it was originally introduced the IEP scheme had three levels - basic, standard and enhanced. Prisoners were assigned onto these levels according to staff reports on their behaviour. Each level involves awards such as:
  • improved and extra visits
  • ability to earn more money in prison jobs
  • access to in-cell television
  • opportunity to wear own clothes
  • ability to access and use private cash resources
  • greater time out of cell for association.
What are the main changes to the IEP scheme?
The main changes to the IEP scheme, which were announced in April 2013 and came into force on 1 November 2013, are:
  • A ban on all sentenced prisoners receiving parcels including books and other basic items, except for a one-off parcel at the start of their sentence and in exceptional circumstances
  • To progress IEP status, prisoners must “demonstrate a commitment towards their rehabilitation” by engaging in purposeful activity, behaving well and helping other prisoners
  • An automatic IEP review for bad behaviour, with a presumption of downgrading
  • Changes to allow IEP reviews to be conducted by a single member of prison staff
  • The introduction of a new entry level between standard and basic. Restrictions at this level include lower rates of pay and a requirement to wear a prison uniform
  • A national standardised list of items available for each level
  • Restrictions on the use of television.
The government should conduct an urgent review of the current Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme taking account of the following recommendations:
  1. Rehabilitation and resettlement should be given priority so that all prisoners remain eligible for services essential to reducing reoffending, including family visits and education – access to these should not be determined by IEP status.
  2. The requirement for prisoners to “demonstrate a commitment to rehabilitation” in order to progress IEP status should be reviewed in light of the impact of cuts to prison staff and regimes.
  3. The ban on prisoners receiving parcels should be reviewed and reversed.
  4. There should be a renewed commitment to ensuring the fair distribution of benefits, in particular by monitoring ethnicity and equal chances for prisoners with a physical disability, poor mental health or a learning disability.
  5. New arrangements for reviewing IEP status should be monitored for their fairness and equality impact.
  6. Given the evidence of increased risk of self-harm and suicide among prisoners who are maintained on the basic regime for extended periods, and on people during their first few weeks in custody, IEP schemes should be required to assess the impact of the regime on the prisoner’s mental health and wellbeing.
  7. At all times, the basic regime should fully meet the tests of decency and conform to international standards.
  8. Prison staff should receive updated guidance and training in how best to administer the IEP scheme clearly and fairly and in ways that help to maintain safety and decency.
  9. Access to the enhanced level and the nature of its benefits should be re-considered to give equal access and benefits for short-term sentenced prisoners.
  10. Remand prisoners awaiting trial and who are innocent until proven guilty should not be subject to the requirements of the IEP scheme.