Published on 18 May 2023
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Breaking from the iron cage of ‘prison works’

Further to Sir John Major’s speech on penal reform in early May, Sam Warner & Dave Richards agree that the ‘prison works’ legacy delivers poor value for money and discuss the many challenges of meaningful reform.

In October 1993 the Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard issued a mantra: ‘prison works’. Intended to break perceived Home Office defeatism about rising crime, it has been both hotly contested and highly influential. His tough stance was supposed to both protect the public and deter would-be criminals from offending by ensuring offenders were kept behind bars. He pronounced that the Government would ‘no longer judge the success of our system of justice by a fall in our prison population’. But has prison worked?

 In 1993, the average prison population was 44,542. A ratchet effect has followed as politicians competed with each other to appear tough on law and order. In May 2023, the total prison population stands at 84,940. Current government policy will see the prison population projected to hit 106,300 by March 2027.  

Thirty years after he signed off on the ‘prison works’, former Conservative Prime Minister, Sir John Major, has re-entered this debate. In a volte-face, he is now arguing that successive governments have overused prison and neglected more appropriate alternatives, especially for vulnerable people. In the overcrowded and often dilapidated prisons, rehabilitation is wishful thinking. Too many offenders churn in and out on remand or serve short sentences. Staff turnover is alarmingly high. This toxic mix has ‘truly shaken [his] belief’ that Britain has one of the ‘most just and civilised penal codes in the world’.

Prison is not working

As part of a Nuffield Foundation funded research project exploring public spending planning and control, we have conducted over 150 interviews with ministers, civil servants and practitioners from HM Treasury to the frontline services, including senior officials and prison governors working in the Prison Service from the 1990s to the present day. Sir John Major’s speech speaks to a remarkable consensus among our interview participants that the ‘prison works’ legacy delivers poor value for money.

Few would argue that the prison system has not been transformed since the early 1990s. Alongside its ‘tough on crime’ messaging, New Labour invested in prison education and rehabilitation. The problem, as Anne Owers noted at the end of her tenure as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, is that a spiraling prison population undermined ‘hard worked-for changes’ and left progress ‘slow and patchy’.

This only got worse from 2010 as austerity cuts began to bite. Prisons felt the pinch as much as anywhere. Given the lack of votes it garners, politicians could take risks they would not countenance elsewhere. Violence and suicides rose markedly. A recruitment and retention crisis followed. Well-meaning promises to reduce the prison population collided with populist politics. There was never a strategy for the long-term.  

Such is the ministerial and policy churn that prison governors have told us about the constant need to keep a keen eye on political developments. In a context of short termism and increasingly squeezed autonomy at the local level, there is a sense that this is a crisis that is largely beyond their control to manage.

The consequences of prisons not working

Sending people to prison is expensive. There is a constant and unsatisfactory tension between the Treasury – which tries to constrain expenditure – and the political ratchet driving up prisoner numbers.

Treasury officials told us that population pressures have made prisons a spending control liability. Trying to constrain capital expenditure to contain spiraling costs has long been the preferred method to focus minds on competing priorities. This would be fine if it worked, but the ongoing legacy of Howard’s prison works rhetoric means that sooner or later, often after Prime Ministerial intervention, funding is released.

The prison governors we spoke to understand the political sensitivities surrounding public spending on prisons. Nevertheless, unpredictability and unrealistic time horizons are a source of deep frustration. Politicians seriously underestimate the task of building new prisons. Planning permission hurdles are ever-present, delays are common and cost profiles often spiral quickly. The rhetoric on prison building does not match the reality on the ground. Building additional temporary accommodation of questionable quality or prisons in the wrong places has long been a feature of always running things close to the wire.

The existing prison estate remains in need of significant investment with an estimated maintenance backlog of £1.3 billion. The reality is we are past the point of no return with many of the older Victorian prisons. Their continued use – because of population pressures – is an incredible drain on resources. A former senior official told us: ‘…always one comes back to this thing that you’re simply trying to stuff people in, you know, to get through tomorrow, and that tends to destroy any strategy in the end’.

It is hardly surprising that people in the sector are frustrated when, as the Justice Committee points out, on women’s prisons, the Treasury has side-stepped its own evidence that shows the cost benefits for a range of budgets of community support instead of prisons. This is more than a lack of understanding – a former civil servant described policy towards female offenders as ‘one of the most frustrating parts of my life as a Treasury official, because you could just see the innate pointlessness of imprisoning these women’ – but reflects the perverse trade-offs being managed.

The Social Exclusion Unit, as far back as 2002, made similar points about the cross-cutting nature of rehabilitation and yet all too often policy is not joined up. One interviewee used an apparently often-made quip that current policy is like investing in Accident and Emergency without anything for public health or general practice. Dame Sally Coates review of prison education points to the prevalence of learning difficulties in prisons. Our interviews with practitioners in schools show an acute awareness of this avoidable path.

Countering the prison works narrative

In short, prisons in England and Wales are in crisis. Sir John Major is the latest in a long list of Conservative politicians to question the status quo. Another former Prime Minister, David Cameron, argued in 2016 that ‘simply warehousing ever more prisoners is not financially sustainable, nor is it necessarily the most cost-effective way of cutting crime’. Yet, a focus on rehabilitation simply cannot be meaningful when enacted alongside, in the words of former Prisons Minister Rory Stewart, service cuts that were ‘close to insane’. This reflects the experience of those on the ground.

No one we have spoken to is naive about how the politics of law and order still dominates the debate. Nor do they wish to discount the views of victims and their families. Yet there is an almost uniform consensus that regards public spending on prisons as costly and inefficient. A former prison governor and senior official described prisons policy as ‘a catastrophic waste of money’. Leaving aside both the ethical and social questions surrounding the prison works agenda, the irony here is that to effect real change may require a shift by those on the centre right of British politics to make – and stick with – an economic case highlighting the deficiencies in the current approach.  

Our interviewees are bluntly realistic about what can be achieved in terms of rehabilitation in the current prison system. Yet it will take a bold politician, willing to consistently follow the evidence and expert advice, to break the iron cage of prisons policy in England and Wales.  Focusing on the resulting costs incurred across the public sector as a result of current policy may be the only way to meaningfully shape the future debate. Not only does ‘prison works’ not work, it imposes unsustainable costs on the public.

Image: HM Prison Manchester in Strangeways, Manchester, England. By Rept0n1x. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Dr Sam Warner

Dr Sam Warner

Dr Sam Warner, Researcher on Nuffield Foundation funded project ‘Public Expenditure Planning and Control in Complex Times: A Study of Whitehall Departments’ Relationship to the Treasury (1993-Present)’, University of Manchester.

Prof Dave Richards
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