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Longer sentences? Overcrowded UK prisons are already failing society

The UK government plans to impose tougher sentences on those convicted of serious crimes, it announced via this year’s king’s speech at the state opening of parliament. Political pundits reacting to the speech on the BBC immediately questioned the rationale behind potentially putting more people in prison, when UK prisons are struggling to accommodate those already under their purview.

The England and Wales prison watchdog has said that one in ten prisons in those two countries should be shut down because of overcrowding and inhumane regimes. Similar concerns have been voiced over prisons in Scotland and in Northern Ireland.

The deteriorating state of the UK’s prisons was emphasised most recently by news reports that, in August 2023, an Irish judge blocked a man’s extradition to Scotland, due to the long hours prisoners in the Scottish estate spend in cells (up to 22 hours a day). The judge also raised concerns about this man’s complex mental health needs, highlighting recent research which identified poor recognition of neuro-developmental disorders across the UK prison estate, despite their relatively high prevalence.

And in September 2023 a German court in Karlsruhe followed suit, refusing to extradite a man to the UK. Here too, the court report cited concerns over prison conditions in a decision described by a member of the UK’s Law Society as a “severe rebuke” and “an embarrassment for the UK”.

As our research and the wider body of scholarship makes clear, what happens on the inside affects both those who are incarcerated and the prison staff. And those struggles, in turn, affect people on the outside – often profoundly.

Bedford Prison, in Bedfordshire, has long been criticised for bad conditions.
Ros Drinkwater|Alamy

The UK’s high rates of imprisonment

Overcrowding is not a new problem, but is now being seen and felt – as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland Wendy Sinclair-Gieben put it in her annual report for 2022-2023 – at an “exacerbated scale”.

British rates of imprisonment are among the highest in western Europe. In Scotland, the prison population rate stands at 144 per 100,000 of the national population. In England and Wales, the figure is a little higher, at 146 per 100,000.

The European average, by contrast, is 118 per 100,000 population (although the median is lower, at 104 per 100,000). The UK’s close European neighbours including the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany, as well as all the Nordic nations, have rates of less than 90 per 100,000.

Imprisonment rates have been climbing in England and Wales over the last 30 years, as well as in Scotland with rates described as “stubbornly high” by criminologists. Yet, overall rates of crime have been consistently falling in England and Wales and Scotland alike.

In Northern Ireland, historically, rates of imprisonment have been closer to those in the Republic of Ireland. While the current rate (99 per 100,000) is lower than the other UK jurisdictions, it is rising.

An interior shot of a Victorian era prison.
HMP Reading closed in 2104 but over 30 Victorian-era prisons are still in operation.
D. Callcut|Alamy

How incarceration impacts prisoners, families and society

Research has long shown that overcrowded prisons serve no one. For those incarcerated, they are harder environments to live in. They reduce opportunities to engage in programmes. They increase people’s risk of coming to physical harm, with rising tensions and inadequate staffing to de-escalate and respond.

For prison staff, overcrowding intensifies an inherently complex and demanding job. Officers expend considerable emotional labour in carrying out their roles. When they are put in charge of more people than a facility is designed to accommodate, the extra burden fuels a cycle of burnout, attrition and understaffing.

Our research shows that the wider impact of bad prison conditions is felt by the families of loved ones in custody – and society at large. Data is not routinely captured on the number of family members affected by imprisonment, although the UK charity, Families Outside, estimates that around 27,000 children in Scotland alone are affected by the imprisonment of a parent each year.

A black and white archival photograph of women and children in front of a wall.
A family burden: Derry women wait for the bus to Long Kesh in the 1980s.
Homer Sykes|Alamy

Part of the impact on families is literally hanging around and waiting, in all kinds of ways – waiting for the trial, waiting for the bus to go to the prison and waiting in corridors before the visit.

Further, family members experience societal stigma and judgment, along with financial stresses. Some suffer from the loss of breadwinner earnings. The family member outside may need to do less paid work, to do more (unpaid) childcare, which the (now) prisoner previously did.

In addition, the emotional toll on families is pronounced. Keeping in touch is very important. This in turn also adds pressure to household budgets however, for example with travel costs associated with prison visits.

Sociologists have long warned about the “pains of imprisonment”, the unique deprivations – of liberty, security, autonomy – that characterise a prison sentence. Family members frequently, and intensely, worry about the impact on incarcerated loved ones. As one family member in a study one of us (Rebecca Foster) undertook in 2019 put it: “If it’s hard visiting, it’s a lot worse being in there. You need to remember that.”

Building more prisons, will not, as has been suggested, result in less overcrowding, nor in a reduction in its associated ills. Rather, it will just see more people being sent to fill them.

Truly addressing overcrowding has to start with reducing the number of people sent to prison in the first place. Community-based punishments should prevail, with prison reserved for only the most serious offenders. The harms of imprisonment have always had a ripple effect. Prisons at crisis point cause even more, far-reaching damage.

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