The State of the UK Prison System: Urgent Need for Reform

Evelyn Woodland
Oct 18, 2023

I will quit if I haven’t succeeded in 12 months in reducing the level of drugs and violence in (those) prisons”.

These were the infamous words of the former Prison minister, Rory Stewart, uttered in January 2019. Here we are a few year's later, Rory’s moved on to, and out of, DfID and we don’t seem to be anywhere nearer to that hopeful picture painted (we’ve all been there with failed new years’ resolutions). In fact, prison violence is at an all-time high.


What is the state of UK prisons nationwide?

A shocking 86% of prisons were rated as having performance of concern or serious concern in relation to the number of incidents of self-harm and prisoner-on-prisoner assault, according to the Prison Performance Ratings of 2018/19. HMIP have previously admitted documenting “some of the most disturbing prison conditions we have ever seen”.

Not enough to convince you that the prison system is in urgent need of reform? Let’s take a closer look. In the 12 months leading up to March 2019, there were a shocking 317 deaths in prison custody. One in seven prisons in England and Wales are considered to be of ‘serious concern’. The number of assaults on prison staff has also reached record levels, up 15% in 2018.

In August 2018, one particular story of prison deterioration dominated the headlines. The Ministry of Justice announced that they were taking over the running of HMP Birmingham, following witnessing ‘appalling’ levels of violence and squalor. Inspectors found corridors filthy with blood, vomit and cockroaches, amid damning levels of violence, drugs and alcohol abuse. One in seven prisoners admitted they had developed drug addictions whilst that they had been inside the prison.


Why are prison standards so poor?

The number one issue, ultimately, is the impact of a lack of funding and drastic cutbacks. One of the biggest impacts of such lack of funding is the significant overcrowding of prisons. England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe, three times that of Italy and Spain. An overcrowded system means that prison officers are struggling to control spiralling numbers of prisoners in limited space. A number of new prisons have been built, but the majority of these are not up to the expected standards. The Prison Reform Trust estimates that around 20,000 prisoners are held in overcrowded conditions, including sharing cells that are designed for one.

Prison staff recruitment and retention is another major challenge facing prisons nationwide. According to official figures, the prison system has lost a cumulative 80,000 years of prison officer experience since 2010. The role of prison officer has become increasingly unattractive as both for those who might have looked to get into the sector and to those already within it. High levels of violence, including prisoner-on-staff violence, cutbacks and low benefits has resulted in prisons becoming severely under-staffed. The knock-on effect of this is not only the immediate issue of a lack of control in prisons, but also the longer-term damaging impact it has on the rehabilitation of prisoners, who wind up leaving the prison more embittered and angrier than when they entered.


So what can be done to raise prison standards?

It is evident that the prison system is in urgent need or reform in order to tackle spiralling levels of violence, drugs and alcohol abuse, improve rehabilitation for prisons and drastically raise prisons standards.

Recent policy moves however, including the £40 million government funding to boost standards in prisons, have hopefully initiated the tackling of this issue.


Interested in learning more?
Join us at the virtual Probation System Management Conference on 29th & 30th March.


This article was written by Becky Clark.