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03 October 2022

Prison system failing to prepare long term prisoners for release

Prisoners serving long sentences are spending years in jail unsure about what they can do to prepare—and ultimately demonstrate their readiness—for release, a new report by the Prison Reform Trust reveals.

Making Progress?, is the first consultation report of the Prison Reform Trust’s Building Futures programme. It follows collaboration with people from around 30 prisons, who have all served—or will serve—a continuous period of at least ten years in custody.

The consultation found that prisoners were confused and disillusioned by the apparently simple proposition that they are required to reduce ‘risk’. Whilst talk of risk pervades prison life and affects many aspects of prisoners’ experiences, this catch-all term masks important details—risk of what, from what, to whom, in what circumstances?

Demonstrating reduced risk is of particular importance to those whose release ultimately depends upon approval by the Parole Board—and if recent proposals become law—the Secretary of State for Justice.

The report suggests that this confusion stems from a mismatch between what prisons appear to expect from prisoners—broadly, compliance with the rules—and what those in probation and the Parole Board are looking for prisoners to demonstrate to secure their own development and eventual release.

Participants told us that this was leading to them spending years of “nothing time” in prison. Years, often in the middle part of their sentence, where the sentence felt purposeless and stagnant.

“Progress? Which part? Serving a life sentence longer than I have lived—is that normal? It felt as if the prison estate did not even know what to do with us. The reality is lifers at the beginning of our sentences were just warehoused like livestock…sadly many lifers, myself included, saw progression as somewhat of a myth”

A life sentenced prisoner, quoted in the report

Another highlighted that their sentence length was acting as a barrier to progression:

“[O]ffending behaviour programmes are prioritised by earliest release date. Which means I have little to no prospect of progressing through my sentence plan or the prison system.”

For others it was their age:

“A minority (but still a substantial number) of long-term prisoners are aware that they are unlikely to live until the end of their sentence. Being rehabilitated to re-enter society is for them (myself included) a false goal.”

The report recommends that HM Prison and Probation Service should develop a long-term prisoner policy framework. It should equip staff working with long-term prisoners to assess risk; communicate this effectively with prisoners and other criminal justice professionals; and give explicit guidance and direction on what kinds of behaviour may demonstrate lowered and elevated risk in future assessments.

It also recommends earlier involvement with the Parole Board in reviewing progress. This would allow any potential roadblocks to release to be identified and a plan to be developed  which outlines the steps prisoners can take. With so many years in custody to work with, the system should be aiming for far more prisoners to be ready and safe for release when the period set for punishment expires.

Commenting, Dr David Maguire, Director of the Prison Reform Trust’s Building Futures project said:

”Successive governments have legislated to make sure that people convicted of the most serious crimes are spending much longer in prison. Far more also now have to convince the Parole Board that they are safe to release when the period set for punishment expires. But what we found on the ground was confusion and frustration, with time wasted rather than used constructively. Ultimately, that results in people serving longer than the court considered necessary for punishment, and poorly prepared for life after release. That amounts to a systemic failure which undermines both justice and public protection.”