Letters: prisons fail us all – policy has to change

Government ineptitude over many years has resulted in overcrowded jails and reoffending on a huge scale – The UK Guardian – 25 Feb 2018

Douglas Hurd: as home secretary, oversaw a decrease in the prison population.

Your report on the crisis in our prison system (“Are Britain’s prisons facing a meltdown?”, Focus) rightly poses the question: what is prison for? However, we have been asking the same question for the past 25 years and we need some tried and tested answers.

Simple rhetoric such as “prison works” have only contributed to the doubling of the prison population. In 1989, the then home secretary, Douglas Hurd, said that “prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse”. Judging by the increase in violence, drug use and suicides, imprisonment continues to make bad people even worse and less likely to be rehabilitated.

Hurd also oversaw one of the few decreases in the prison population by bolstering the work of the probation service and increasing the use of community sentences, which must be part of the answer to the current crisis.

The privatisation and subsequent failings of some aspects of the probation service have undermined its potential to be part of the solution. I hope that the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, with his positive attitude will stay long enough in post to repair the foundations of the probation service and rebuild its pre-privatisation, gold standard reputation.

Perhaps devolving some of the commissioning of local probation services to the police and crime commissioners could provide local solutions to local problems of reoffending and rehabilitation.

John Bensted
Retired chief probation officer of Gloucestershire Probation Trust


Nobody could have read the article without very considerable concern. However, as a former prison governor and subsequently a consultant criminologist and author, it did not in the least surprise me.

This crisis has been deepening since the mid-1990s to the extent of becoming “business as usual”. Five successive governments (three Conservative and two Labour) and 15 home secretaries or, since 2007, justice secretaries, have presided over a criminal justice process that has sleepwalked into a state of chaos and shameful mismanagement. It is therefore unfair to lay the blame entirely at the door of the prisons.

The root causes of the malaise are simply stated: ill-considered penal policy-making resulting in an uncontrolled escalation in the daily prison population and a persistent overcrowding of prisons to the extent of making them virtually unmanageable in a safe and disciplined manner. In 2017, some 80 of the 118 prisons were “crowded” or worse.

The time has now come to redo the maths, revise the political rhetoric of prisons and enable them to deliver their essential social purpose. We might profitably start with a rebuttal of the infamous claim in 1993 by the then home secretary, Michael Howard, one of the original architects of the penal crisis, that “prison works”.

Let us be clear: prisons fail. They do so because too many minor offenders are sent there and overload their capacity to deliver their service to the state and the public. Prisons are, in their present state, unsafe and unstable for prisoners and prison staff. Even worse, they are more than 60% ineffective in reducing reoffending within a year of release, at prohibitive cost to the taxpayer. The time has come to reverse this deplorable situation in the national interest. Politicians, not HM Prison Service, carry the responsibility for making this happen.

David J Cornwell
Conderton, Gloucestershire