Have we reached a watershed moment for prison reform?
Leverets Interviews Criminal Justice Advocate Andrew Morris
Prison Reform is a highly-publicised and politicised issue right now. So Leverets sat down with Andrew Morris,a former prisoner under the abolished IPP scheme and now criminal justice expert and prison reform advocate, to discuss the state of the prison system, the impact of government inaction, barriers to change, and what the future of prison reform should look like.
New research has highlighted the sheer scale of the overcrowding issue in UK prisons, with some holding 70% more inmates than they have capacity for and one in ten on the verge of closure due to poor conditions. Add to this a recent high-profile prisoner escape, a new Justice Minister promising to modernise the criminal justice system and correct the mistakes of his predecessor, and a looming general election, and it prompts a new feeling of optimism that we may have finally reached a watershed moment for real and sustainable prison reform.
Is it churlish to hold such optimism? Unfortunately – yes, says Andrew. He fears no one really has the broad shoulders needed to tackle the complex systemic issues at play.
“We’re teetering on the edge of reform, and I am always optimistic for change. But we’re still waiting for Alex Chalk to set out his stall, and I am sceptical about the Government’s appetite for change in the run up to a general election. Will they do what’s right, or what’s good for votes? Let’s be honest – prison reform is not a vote winner, despite how much the current broken system costs taxpayers every year.”
So just how broken are the UK’s prisons?
The state of the UK prison system
The state of the prison system has been a problem for decades, with inmate numbers consistently on the rise whilst staffing is on the decline. The prison population has increased by almost 400% since the 1990s, with the most recent figures showing the UK has a total prison population exceeding 95,000 people, with an expectation this could grow to around 106,000 by 2027.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons recently declared that the UK is “warehousing people in overcrowded, unsafe prisons”. Andrew strongly agrees with this assertion, based on his lived experience during 12 years in jail, and his work since on behalf of the Ministry of Justice, as a trustee of the Raphael Rowe Foundation, and an advocate for Breakthrough social enterprise.
“Too many people are banged up because it’s an easy fix”, says Andrew. According to recent figures 61% of prisoners are jailed for non-violent offences, many are being kept in past their minimum tariffs under a wrongly-held assumption that longer sentences lead to greater public safety, the number of people in prison on remand is at record levels, almost half of the prison population has some form of neurodivergent condition, and 67% of prisoners are reported to have mental health problems. It’s also worth noting we still have 2,892 IPP prisoners in jail serving indeterminate sentences, under the now-abolished public protection scheme which incarcerated people considered “likely to cause harm.”
“It costs the UK taxpayer more than £45,000 per year to keep non-violent prisoners in jail, a figure that’s considerably higher for violent offenders. We’re spending money needlessly when there is a better way for many people in the system. What is more, these people are living in prisons that are no longer fit for purpose, in horrific conditions and under increasingly longer sentences. In my experience many prisoners have little access to mental health care and rehabilitation services. And we wonder why they come out even more bitter and broken than when they went in.”
This is another huge issue for the criminal justice system to tackle. Reoffending rates are incredibly high right now, with more than two in five adults reconvicted of another offence within one year of release. Reoffending, or recidivism, is a huge challenge for policy makers.
“If people do not come out of prison better than when they went in something is truly broken with the prison system”,
What needs to change?
“Prisoners need three key things if they are to come out better than they went in, and for public safety to be improved” says Andrew. Firstly, good relationships. Recidivism rates are decreased, and post-release outcomes improved when prisoners can maintain personal relationships with both their family and local communities.
Secondly, employment. Andrew believes, perhaps controversially, that open prisons are part of the problem rather than part of the solution in this regard. Instead of housing people in open prisons hundreds of miles from their homes and families, it would be far better to offer non-violent prisoners release on temporary license to give them opportunities to develop skills and gain jobs with local business, in preparation for their release. Open prisons cost more to run and need more staff, money and resources that would be better utilised serving the high-risk prison community, which ultimately poses the greatest risk to public safety.
Thirdly, accommodation. The crumbling prison estate in the UK means conditions are incredibly poor. Even basic requirements such as being housed in a cell of the correct size for the number of prisoners, adequate lighting, heating and ventilation, and access to water and sanitisation are not being met. Again, it’s an issue not just of doing right by prisoners, who are all too often dehumanised by the system and squalid conditions, but of doing right by the public and improving public safety. “To put it bluntly, if we put people in shitholes, we cannot be surprised if they come out worse than when they went in”, says Andrew.
We need more people like Andrew
Finally, Andrew believes a lack of lived experience in shaping prison reform at the highest levels is a huge barrier to change. People with lived experience have a unique insight into what works in the criminal justice system, where the biggest impact can be made, and what changes would be in the greatest prisoner, public, and economic interest.
We can’t help but agree. The criminal justice system needs to consult more with people and organisations like Andrew, Raphael Rowe, the Prison Reform Trust, Breakthrough, and StandOut, who are creating real movements for change and are in a unique position to help policy makers deliver impactful and sustainable transformation of the prison system.
“We need to have the tough conversations, and we need people in power who are not only willing to listen to those with lived experience but incorporate this valuable insight into policy making. I know it can be better and I will continue to shout loudly, add my voice to the debate, and amplify the insight of other valuable influencers until it is.”