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The Problems and Ways of Improvement the Prison System in the UK

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In England and Wales, the prison system is in crisis. Self-harming in prison has reached a record high of 61,461 cases in the past 12 months up to September 2019; compared to the previous 12 months that’s an increase of 16% (Government, 2020).

The National Probation Service are also under pressure to provide appropriate rehabilitation and supervision services to prisoners who have left prison; however, there is a shortage of staff, which means there is a higher case load which they are trying to resolve. The Government stated that it is their priority to make more spaces in prison, but without support from other resources in terms of prison safety and services that are available for prisoners after leaving, this could potentially put offenders in a very violent and dangerous place, with a very low possibility of reform or rehabilitation (Janjeva, 2020).

At the beginning of 2019 in the UK, the Justice committee published a report on the state of existing government capabilities, and the current attitude towards funding of prisons, in order to help increase population capacity, which their forecast stated was ineffective, unproductive and not manageable in both the short and long term. The prison population is increasing. In England and Wales, the number of prisoners has nearly doubled in the past 25 years. In 1993 there were 44,246 prisoners and that number had risen to 82,384 in December 2018 (Garside, 2018). Additionally, over the past ten years, government has created more new criminal offences than were introduced in the previous 100 years. Due to the increase in numbers, prisons are often overcrowded and unable to facilitate the inmates, as a result of a deficiency in staff numbers and rehabilitative services. These services often come in the form of education, offending behaviour programmes, substance misuse treatment and mental health care, all of which have been severely reduced. The committee identified that this has resulted in vast amounts of money being wasted (Garside, 2018).

As there have been many changes made to legal aid funding, this should also be taken into consideration within the larger perspective of the benefits it has added.

A rigorous Government austerity programme was designed to stop a culture of wellbeing dependence, where hard work was rewarded and public funds were used to help applicants engage in back to work activities (HM Government 2010; Patrick 2012, p. 6). The programme concentrates on people going back to work and focuses on the priciples of what makes a good citizen (Anderson, 2013, p. 27; Patrick, 2012).

The transformation of the welfare system consequently has not been promoted purely as a cost-cutting design, but also as a cultural transformation that produces fruitful benefits of the taxpayers’ money (Flynn et al., 2017).

However, there is also an issue of the prisoners’ living conditions. England and Wales have been mostly affected, for the past several years the prison conditions have been deteriorating (House of Commons, 2018). Prison is not and never has been a relaxed or happy place to be. Notwithstanding this fact, to find the solution of how to improve the situation and the crisis, the main aim would be to determine what are seen to be the working dysfunctions or flaws of the jails themselves (Criminal Justice, 2018).

The Prisons Minister for England and Wales, stated that the key to stopping the prisons crisis would be going back to basics: prisons should be operated in a decent and clean way instead of ‘abstract conversations… about grand bits of prison policy’ (Stewart, 2018). He strongly suggested that with a concrete plan of action put in to place, the conditions of prisons could be improved. However, as the idea of change was not followed through, Stewart resigned from his position the following year (The Guardian, 2019).

Social control perspective looks at broader characteristics of social control to show the ‘deeper structure’ with the use of punishment (Cohen, 1984). Whilst a somewhat contentious issue, Duff and Garland (1994) look at the question of how people coordinate and use their power to discipline those that do not follow the rules. The difference can be distinguished easily by using Hudson’s ‘(1996; 2003, p. 10)view which asserts that the philosophy of punishment reflects on how issues should be resolved and the ways of doing it. The sociology of this explains why specific cultures accept exact styles of punishment (Carrabine, 2014).

One of the steps taken by the government in 2018 was to employ an additional 2500 prison staff. However, this did little to counteract the nearly 7000 staff members who had been made redundant or who took voluntary redundancy in the period between 2012 and 2016. The next step was to tackle the problem of reoffending by focusing on supporting the prisoners while in prison and concentrating on issues before they happened again in order to break the cycle (Garside, 2018).

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Statistics and comparison to Europe

According to Prison Statistics in 2014, compared to Europe, the UK has the largest number of prison residences, a total of 93,665 taking into consideration all three prison organizations (England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) (Fulton, 2016).

In the many European countries there has been a big drop in the number of staff members between 2010-2015.The Council of Europe Statistics for the time between 2008 and 2013 show that, in 17 of the 29 EEA countries, the number of staff has gone down. The numbers of staff members have gone from 308,647 in 2008 to 293, 356 in 2013, which is a big drop of 5.0%, even though the figures are showing that there has been increase in prisoners of 1.5% overall in those 29 countries. Prison staff are described as people employed in the reformatory system, both under the authorization of the state prison administrations or of an alternative public authority, for example, health ministry, participating in the safety, behaviour, education or other activities of prisoners. The biggest fall in the staff members was experienced in the UK (21.2%) and Latvia (30.5%) between 2008 and 2013, according to Annual Penal Statistics Council of Europe. Looking at this report, an image emerges showing that prison services are under pressure throughout Europe; staff members are struggling to cope with the number of offenders, increases in violence and are under a large amount of stress. Union service plays a big role in defending and trying to better the terms and conditions of the members and attempts to give a good service to the prisoners (Fulton, 2016).

Although, in UK, the Justice Committee report states the current aim of the government seems to focus on safety and decency, which comes at a big cost to the rehabilitation of the prisoners. There are four key criteria of HMCIP, which are: Safety, Respect, Purposeful activity, and rehabilitation and release planning.

There must be a change, so a dual method could be applied for both safety and decency, but which also focuses on making better rehabilitation for the prisoners (UK Parliament 2019). The Criminal Justice Act of 1948 put a stop to free labour, hard labour and violence towards prisoners in England and Wales prisons. This was one of the steps to change the perspective of prison, to look at it as a place of change/reform instead of punishment. Existing legislation is in place in order to tackle the issue (Prison service orders, prison service instructions, prison rules Act, 1999). Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP) has stated in his annual report how more focus will be made on the safety of staff/prisoner, rehabilitation and release planning, highlighting positive work going on in prisons (UK Parliament, 2019).

Andrew Coyle has pointed out boundaries on the penal system in UK and strongly believes that there has to be a change. Through the creation of the Howard League for Penal Reform, there has been a real focus on the necessity to distinguish among internal (largely economic) issues and external ones motivated by punishing (Fairweather et al., 2013).

Marzano (2012) maintains that prisoners are affected by the change of circumstances they are in and how they would like to be treated by staff, as well as what impact it has on them. Marzano (2012) concentrates on self-harming in prisons and prisoners’ expectations of staff members. Most of the prisoners that took part in the interview stated that they would like more care and support, but most of all understanding of why they are self-harming or trying to commit suicide. Also, to look at the issue of detoxification and sudden lack of control over the situation they find themselves in. What has also been cited during the interviews was that many prisoners wanted to be considered as adults and taken seriously (Marzano, 2012). Offenders have stated that there is so much violence and death in prison, sometimes it is hard to be a part of it. When there is not enough support and help to care for mental health, prisoners often feel left to their own devices. Staff that take time to build relationships with the prisoners and talk to them have more chance in making a difference and helping them with their mental health and wellbeing. The interview showed the positive impact prison staff can have on people as long as they treat them like human beings (Marzano et al., 2012).

Home Office Crime Reduction Strategy have committed considerable financial means for creating an evidence-based therapy system to be used, not only in prisons but also in probation services, this is done to very high standard (Krause 2019al.,1999; Home Office, 199a). This design focuses on the behaviour of each offender, but also the facilities they are in, looking deeper behind the crime committed and the reason behind it. This treatment matched the political and ideological Zeitgeist: forma of sociological assessment, which sensitises a phenomenon that can be defined autonomously and include trans-historical schemes or binaries or group-specific designs. Distanced from an idealist custom in historiography, that make a strong judgment about times as cohere). This assessment approach has been used to help offenders and can be proven in “What Works” literature (Craig et al., 2013) as something that is working. Studies have shown that this lower reoffending by 10%, which, whilst small, is significant (Lipesy, 1995: Losel, 1995). Cognitive-behavioural programs are successful and effective. However, not all prisoners qualify for it or have access to this treatment. Prison staff and probation officers unfortunately do not have the capacity to provide it to every offender in the criminal justice system (McMurran, 2002). The main criteria to join the programme is motivation to change. Miller (1985) pointed out that motivation is judged on the basis if the client accepts the therapist’s point of view of the issue and complies with the treatment prescribed. However, not all prisoners have the motivation to invest effort into self-development and improvement (McMurran, 2002).


The criminal justice system is working on making improvements, however they are not looking enough to the issue of decreasing staff numbers and increasing numbers of prisoners. There is also not enough done to prevent reoffending, but also to protect staff’s mental health.

As stated by Emma Disley (Research Group Director, Home Affairs and Social policy RAND Europe) the way to improve would be to stop focusing on short term results over a short period of time. It is more crucial to focus on prisoners and the effect prison has on them and their lives, instead of short advice about a programme for the short amount of time they have spent in prison. As stated before, prison has an impact on an individual and in many cases, it might take a long period of time to realise, in that case the more practical and suitable timeframes could be set.

However, UK prisons are facing very difficult times at the moment and current programmes being measured could potentially have play an important role in prisons’ effectiveness and have a significant impact on prisoner.

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The Problems and Ways of Improvement the Prison System in the UK. (2021, September 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 7, 2023, from
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