Four Steps to Real Prison Reform

The BBC Panorama documentary on HMP Northumberland, which aired on 13th February 2017, told a story that has been known by criminologists and forensic psychologists for a long time. First, our prisons are overcrowded, underfunded, and there aren’t enough staff to maintain effective control. Added into that now, though, was the detrimental effect that the profit motive of private companies like Sodexo is having on both prison facilities, and efforts to successfully rehabilitate prisoners. What I want to do in this post is to look at how we can start to change prisons for the better.

I want to start by saying that the problems with the prison service aren’t – as some people are trying to suggest – purely a result of drives to cut costs and privatise another public service. While this is obviously one of the key issues facing Northumberland, this post is about much more than just one prison. The whole way that we view incarceration, punishment, and rehabilitation needs to change.

I’ve got four key recommendations for improving the prison system, which are supported by research evidence in relation to the extent to which they produce people who are more likely than not to go on to live crime-free lives.


This is probably the most fundamental issue that we have to address as a society. Prison is a punishment. That is, we need to be firm when we say that people go to prison as punishment, not for it. All too often we are confronted by headlines about holiday camps, plush cells, and Sky TV subscriptions. Whether or not these are present doesn’t (and shouldn’t) matter in the grand scheme of things. The role of prison is to deprive people of their liberty. Everything that happens inside prison should be geared towards preparing people to live again with it.

When thinking about this from a psychological standpoint, we can consider two key models of rehabilitation. The first is called the Risk-Need-Responsivity Model, and suggests that those who are at the highest risk of reoffending should have the most therapeutic input, and only those factors that directly cause offending behaviour – called criminogenic needs – should be targeted through treatment. The second approach is called the Good Lives Model. With this approach, the aim is to help people achieve things called ‘primary human goods’ – things like healthy living, having control over their own destiny, and being able to successfully join and function within communities. For too long, we have been focused on risk – I think it’s about time we shifted our attention towards helping people to achieve a good (and non-offending) life.


On a past episode of BBC debate show Sunday Morning Live, Lord Ramsbottom used a metaphor to compare prisons to acute hospital wards – places that should only ‘admit’ those with the highest amount of need.

This makes sense, as many people who conduct research into prison reform refer to the so-called ‘schools of crime” theory, which suggests that low-level offenders, who commonly serve sentences of less than 12 months, essentially learn how to commit crimes in a more effective manner.

This claim seems to have some resonance when you consider reconviction rates following these short-sentences – around 60% of those serving less than a year in prison are found guilty of another offence within twelve months.

For me, the answer to this problem is simple. What we should be doing is removing first- and second-time low level offenders from the prison population altogether. It costs around £40,000 to keep one person in prison for 12 months, while an equivalent length community sentence, which incorporates community payback and psychological interventions for things such as substance abuse issues, costs around £4,000. Add to this the relative re-offending rates for these sentencing options – 60% for prison vs. 30-35% for community alternatives, and the choice becomes more clear. The costs saved on imprisonment can then be reinvested, and there is a more effective staff:prisoner ratio, which is a key issue damaging the prison environment at the moment.


In the Panorama documentary, we saw prisoners undertaking so-called ‘purposeful activity’. What were they doing? Colouring in Peppa Pig. Not only is this offensive to taxpayers who fund prison-based education, but it’s also a total waste of time – both for staff and for prisoners.

So what’s the solution?

I mentioned on a tweet during the show last night that I believe prisons should be run essentially as small villages. By this, what I mean is that they should have real jobs, in real businesses, and real education in real schools. Obviously, staffing for services where qualifications are needed, such as schools and medical facilities, may need to be outsourced to either private providers or local authorities, but other businesses, such as a post office or ‘village’ shop could be run primarily for prisoners, and by prisoners.

This approach would take the therapeutic community idea and expand on it. At the moment, we have a number of therapeutic communities in the prison service – the most famous being HMP Grendon. These are prisons where the focus is on operating as a functioning community, with therapeutic input being provided by all members of staff – from psychologists to prison officers. This might sound like a soft approach to prison, but just take a look at the effectiveness of this approach – only around 20% of Grendon prisoners reoffending within 18 months of release, which is around one-third of the average for the entire prison estate. If you still think that’s too high, then maybe we should look further afield. How about Norway? One of their maximum security prisons – Halden – has been referred to as the world’s most humane prison, and has a 20% reoffending rate, while the Bastoy Island Prison (which actually does operate as it’s own small village) has a reoffending rate of just 14% – six-times lower than the European average. In short, if you treat people in prison humanely, and give them a sense of purpose, then the chances of them returning once released is significantly lowered.


Democracy in prisons is something that has been in the headlines on-and-off for some time, with the legal challenge in 2013 to extend voting rights to prisoners. While this was never going to be a good idea politically, by allowing some level of democracy in prisons, we can begin to make them into more realistic environments – and ones that mirror the type of environment being experienced by those not detained.

It might be possible to introduce a kind of artificial democracy in line with the ideas I’ve already mentioned. For example, each prison would hold regular elections, and vote for prisoners who put themselves forward for specific roles within the community. This would get prisoners used to voting for people who subsequently have a responsibility for their wellbeing, and could lead to some senior members of the prison population (those nearing the ends of long sentences, for example) assuming positions of power and responsibility in preparation for lives in the community. What this does is again add to the sense of purpose that some lose when entering prison. By giving a position of responsibility, this person may be afforded certain privileges for carrying out their role successfully, meaning that they would be motivated to both conduct themselves properly, and act as a positive role model for other prisoners.

Of course all of this would need money. Some of this could take the form of reinvested capital that is saved from the switch from short-term prison sentences to community-based alternatives. However, converting prison environments into functioning communities will need the Government to provide some initial investment. However, the long-term savings to be made from reduced reoffending rates makes this a no-brainer. The one thing that must be central to this process, though, is cross-party support. By having a cross-party backing for this switch, short-term political aims (such as winning the next election) won’t hinder these changes, in the face of what would likely be quite hostile public commentary in the first instance. However, it’s time for our politicians to wake up, and realise that only looking at the evidence (rather than the emotion) of imprisonment is the best way to address our current prison crisis.

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