David Cowan: The Urgent Need for Prison Reform

Theresa May kicked off this year with a bold social reform speech which outlined her vision for a ‘Shared Society’. Instead of focusing solely on ‘social justice’ and ‘social mobility’, May promised ‘real social reform across every layer of society’. We have yet to see how this rhetoric will be translated into policy, but it is worrying that May appears to be distancing herself from the social reform agenda pursued by David Cameron.


A year ago, Cameron gave his landmark ‘Life Chances’ speech which reinvigorated his mission to deal with the root causes of poverty. Michael Gove expanded on this mission by putting forward a plan for reforming Britain’s prisons system, which is in dire need of radical change. It is understandable that May should make her own mark on the Conservative party, but it is disappointing that Gove’s prison reforms have been side-lined. Since taking office, the new Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, has taken no action to implement Gove’s reforms when change is so desperately needed. 

From 1993 to 2016, the total prison population in Britain increased from 44,246 to 85,134, and is the highest prison population in Western Europe. The average cost of a prisoner was £32,510 in 2015-16. A significant cause of this large and costly prison population is Britain’s worryingly high reoffending rate which has hovered between 26% and 27% since 2004. Prisons are essential for the deterrence and punishment of crime, but they also have to provide people with a second chance in life. At present, prisons are failing to resolve prisoners’ struggles with their health and education, or to provide a healthy environment which discourages violent behaviour. 

Only last month, HMP Birmingham was overcome by a prison riot which lasted over twelve hours and led to 240 prisoners being transferred out. This came after similar incidents at HMP Bedford and HMP Lewes in the previous couple of months. The flow of alcohol, legal highs, and drugs into prisons is worsening inmates’ problems with addiction and mental health, which in turn is fostering violent incidents. Prisoners using smuggled mobile phones to post their drug use on social media has become a regular occurrence. The disturbingly high suicide rate in the prison population is ten times higher than the general population. This malaise in our prison system has been reflected by the prison staff as well, especially after the Prison Officers’ Association attempted a 24-hour walkout last year.

It is more important than ever that the Government gets to grips with the problem and introduces radical reforms for the prisons system. In one of her first speeches as Prime Minister, May declared her mission to make Britain ‘the world’s great meritocracy’ where anyone can be a success regardless of their class, gender, or race. This can only be a meaningful goal if there is a real chance of redemption for people who have been trapped in a life of crime.

Fortunately for May, Cameron and Gove have already set out a plan for how this can be achieved. Under their proposals for ‘reform prisons’, prison governors would be granted greater autonomy over budgets, commissioning services, staff management, and in-custody activities. By releasing prison governors from the dead hand of Whitehall, they would be better equipped to respond to the needs of their inmates and produce innovation solutions. Successful ‘reform prisons’ would then be able to takeover failing prisons in order to spread good practice. Prisons would also be held accountable by the regular publication of performance statistics and a Prisons League Table. Introducing greater flexibility and transparency into the prisons system will be crucial if there is to be any hope for raising the quality of how prisoners are treated.

The introduction of ‘reform prisons’ should only be the first move in a serious effort to transform Britain’s prisons system. For example, more work can be done to advance Ken Clarke and Chris Grayling’s ‘rehabilitation revolution’ which has been an important, market-led approach to delivering high quality services to prisoners. Greater investment is needed for new prisons outside of city centres, so overcrowded, outdated inner city relics from the Victorian era can be closed. Only a major overhaul of the prisons system can give the second chance at a better life that many people deserve. 

The potential benefits of prison reform are substantial. Not only would it help make our streets safer and reduce the hefty bill sent to taxpayers, it would also help spread opportunity and reward aspiration across British society. By including a Prisons Reform Bill in her first Queen’s Speech, May can truly deliver a ‘Shared Society’ with ‘fairness and solidarity at its heart’.

David Cowan is a freelance writer, Conservative activist, and Cambridge University graduate. 

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