Another year, another bleak outlook for our prison system. Last week, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) published their annual report summarising key findings from this year’s inspection visits and reports, and warned that many long-standing issues have not been addressed or have even worsened throughout 2021-2022.
Housing and resettlement
Echoing the concerns raised by our lived experience members, the report notes that “many [male] prisoners were released homeless” and that “finding suitable accommodation for women leaving prison remains a huge challenge”. It is well established that homelessness and unsuitable housing is one of the main factors holding people back from turning their lives around and escaping the cycle of crisis and crime. The Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) own data shows that people who are released from prison into homelessness are over 50% more likely to reoffend within a year.
As some of our members stated in a recent Amnesty UK report, being released from prison into homelessness is often due to people not having the timely support or information needed to navigate housing and benefits applications, which is further complicated by current backlogs with the system. In our Probation Inquiry, we highlighted how scaling up early release planning – by enabling prison in-reach probation staff to commence joint resettlement planning as soon as possible, and immediately upon reception for those serving short sentences – could mitigate some of those problems.
This is particularly concerning given the large proportion of people being held on short sentences, which accounted for two in five prison admissions in 2021. Short sentences generally do not leave enough time for people to receive the support they need in prison, while being long enough to have the most devastating effect on someone’s employment prospects, financial and housing arrangements or family life and overall well-being. It comes as no surprise that they are least effective at reducing reoffending, as evidenced by the MoJ’s reoffending statistics.
Women in prison
Despite the Female Offender Strategy’s welcomed emphasis on community provision, progress has been limited and many women continue to be imprisoned for short sentences, often linked to unmet health and social needs. This is reflected in HMIP’s observation that prisons continue to be used as a ‘place of safety’ for women with acute mental health needs across the country due to a lack of community provision. For many of our members who have experienced first-hand mental health care shortages, seeing the Government invest into 500 new prison places for women rather than holistic community support is a difficult pill to swallow.
Equality and diversity
When we welcomed the first-of-its-kind Police Race Action Plan in May, we stressed that racial disproportionality is far but limited to policing. This is mirrored in HMIP’s findings that racially minoritised people, including Gypsy Roma Travellers communities, and people with protected characteristic more generally consistently experience more negative outcomes and perceptions. Data shows that Black people are almost 4 times more likely to be in prison, but also more likely to be convicted and remanded in custody. This calls for urgent action to address disproportionality at every single step of the process – including probation, courts, sentencing, prison and probation.
HMIP is right to point out that these issues are compounded by insufficient equality monitoring, representation and complaint mechanisms. As we have recently highlighted in a co-produced blog on LGBTQ+ people in the criminal justice system, meaningful data monitoring is essential to ensure those communities are visible, and their specific needs catered to by policy and services. The involvement of experts by experience, such as LGBTQ-led or race equality organisations and community leaders, is essential in the process of reviewing these policies and services – as is the promotion of more affirming environments, i.e spaces that affirm identities and help marginalised groups feel safe and represented.
The report also gives a worrying overview of the needs of neurodiverse people in prison, which remain largely overlooked and misunderstood due to insufficient screening and assessment, training of staff and adaptation of services. While the prevalence of neurodiversity in prison is widely documented – with estimates showing that half of those in prison can be reasonably be expected to have some form of neurodivergent condition – only 24% of prison staff have received relevant training. The MoJ’s recent Neurodiversity Action Plan, which we were glad to be able to feed into, is an important first step to address some of those issues – and we hope the Government will continue to involve people with lived experience throughout its implementation. However, we want to emphasise that the needs of neurodivergent people cannot be fully met in the current state of the custodial environment, and significant improvements will be needed.
Lived experience engagement
It is encouraging to see peer support was found to be used in most prisons, and we believe a national model would serve to unify and encourage this practice. Research as well as insight from our lived experience membership equally point to peer support being critical to improve both relationships with staff and the quality of support.
As our members rightfully emphasise, ‘those closest to the problem are closest to the solution’ and meaningful lived experience involvement should be mainstreamed across the whole criminal justice system.