The latest edition of the Prison Reform Trust's Bromley briefings prison factfile highlights in facts and figures the consequences of a punitive political arms race over criminal justice policy over the past three decades. Steep cuts to prison staff and budgets in recent years have exposed the fault lines of a failed approach. The result is an overcrowded and overstretched prison system where standards of safety and decency are way below international expectations.
This year’s Bromley briefings open with a brand new section which we have called “The long view”. The Prison Reform Trust has built its reputation over more than three decades on presenting accurate evidence about prisons and the people in them. In a world where ministers feel compelled to respond to issues with ever greater immediacy, “The long view” offers an antidote to the latest Twitter storm or early morning grilling in the media.
We have chosen to concentrate in this briefing on the issue of overcrowding. In 1990, the then Director General of the prison service said: “The removal of overcrowding is, in my view, an indispensable pre-condition of sustained and universal improvement in prison conditions…for improvement to be solid and service-wide, the canker of overcrowding must be rooted out.” 
Few with any close knowledge of the system would take a different view now. However, what the evidence shows is that the core of the current government’s approach—to spend more building more prison spaces—is identical to the actions of all its predecessors since the early 1990s. There is every possible indication that it will meet the same fate. So PRT has commissioned two pieces of expert independent analysis relevant to any serious strategic policy to solve the problem of overcrowding. 
First, we asked a former Director of Finance for the prison service, Julian Le Vay, to analyse the published data on the Ministry of Justice’s spending review settlement with the Treasury and its plans for future investment in new prisons. He concluded that the capital cost of a policy based on building more prisons since 1980 has been £3.7bn, and generated an additional annual running cost of £1.5bn—enough to have built 25,000 new homes, and to be employing 50,000 more nurses or teachers.
But he also concludes that the ministry’s current ambitions are inadequately funded to the tune of £162m in 2018/19, rising to £463m in 2022/23. On current population projections, there is no prospect of any impact on overcrowding before 2022, and a further new programme of building will be needed from 2026.
Second, we asked Dr Savas Hadjipavlou, of Justice Episteme, to run a scenario on the sophisticated model he has created. This uses what we know about the typical life histories of people who end up in the criminal justice system, together with what we know about how that system operates, to assess the impact of demographic or other changes on key criminal justice outcomes—including the likely size of the prison population. The scenario removed the statutory changes that have inflated sentencing since 2003, and suggests that we would now have a prison population of 70,000 had those changes not been made— in other words, a population several thousand below the system’s current uncrowded capacity.
Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:
“Given this briefing’s depressing catalogue of failure to improve conditions in our prisons over the last 12 months, it is essential that the current justice secretary—a historian himself—learns the lessons of the past. He can no more build his way to a decent prison service than any of his predecessors. There is an affordable and practical route to reform, but it requires a fundamental rethink of who goes to prison, and for how long. A wise secretary of state should choose no other foundation on which to build.”

Click here to download a copy of the Autumn 2017 Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile.

A copy of Dr Savas Hadjipavlou’s paper is available by clicking here
A copy of Julian Le Vay’s paper, published on 7 December 2017, is available by clicking here

Image credit: AndyAitchison.UK