Try as he may, Chris Grayling can’t make prison cuts without cutting prison numbers

Efforts by the coalition to reduce expenditure on prisons are fraught with problems, including, potentially, from the ever-reliable G4S.


Mark Gettleson is the campaigns and communications manager at the Howard League for Penal Reform

“Prison does not work” is not just a cry of idealistic progressives, but according to polling last year conducted by Lord Ashcroft, was the view of 58% of the British public [1]. We may differ on how or whether prison can be made to work, but the consensus around dysfunction is clear.

The oft-quoted statistics of failure speak for themselves: it costs an average of £39,573 to keep someone behind bars for a year [2], and 47% of adults are re-convicted within one year of release – rising to 57% among those serving less than a year [3].

Given that not all crimes result in the perpetrator being caught and successfully prosecuted, ‘ re-conviction’ of course represents the minimum level of re-offending.

It is from this simple realisation the government’s ‘rehabilitation revolution’ stems; the promotion of real work in prison (an idea first promoted by the Howard League), a renewed emphasis on the importance of education and, this week, proposals for a new mentoring scheme.

In reality, however, those who find themselves inside our overflowing prisons are warehoused with little access to what limited opportunities there are for practical activity, education and training. Too many find themselves simply stored, forced to lay around in bed all day watching trashy TV.

Nick Hardwick, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, highlighted in July the disturbing fact a third of sex offenders in prison were unable to access sex offender treatment courses.

Hardwick went on to highlight the central question in his annual report, declaring [4]:

“There is a clear choice for politicians and policy makers – reduce prison populations or increase prison budgets.”

The justice secretary, though far from ignorant of the budget constraints under which he operates, rejected the Chief Inspector’s analysis of the fork in the road, declaring on Tuesday [5]:

“We have a simple choice. We either have fewer people in our prisons. Or we can bring down the cost of each prison place.”

But no sooner had Grayling presented this false choice, he said:

“It will be no surprise which option I have chosen. I want us to strain every sinew to make our prison system more cost effective, to bring those costs down.”

The justice secretary pointed in particular to HMP Oakwood, a new £150 million ‘superprison’ run by G4S [6], as a shining example of what can be achieved in cost-cutting. This seems eye-wateringly premature.

Oakwood is so new it doesn’t even feature in the Ministry of Justice ‘Costs per place and costs per prisoner’ report published just a month ago, which declared:

“This private prison did not become operational during the year.”

G4S has assured the government a low cost-per-prisoner, but they also said the prison would be running at full capacity by autumn this year; as of late September a third was still empty [7].

It also seems highly misleading to compare a shiny new (and incredibly expensive) prison to the decaying Victorian institutions that make up the majority of our prison stock. There is also the question as to how G4S might achieve a lower prisoner cost; they may employ fewer staff with poorer training and cherry-pick less troublesome prisoners, passing the rest on to public prisons. All of these have been suggested, but it is too early to say.

The simple truth is that locking someone away is expensive. Experience shows an emphasis on lowering the cost-per-place of prison, though worthy, tends to result in overcrowded, unsafe environments with poorly trained staff.

This may seem cheaper in the short run, but the individuals who leave such prisons are more likely to re-offend in large part due to the physical and psychological trauma they will have experienced.

This is why we must go to great lengths to defend the model of Secure Children’s Homes, which, though more expensive than simply dumping a young boy or girl in a children’s prison (euphemistically termed ‘Young Offenders Institutions’), produces far better outcomes for the often vulnerable and neglected children who end up committing crime.

Spending on prisons, which stood at more than £4bn for 2009-10 [8], must fall urgently, but the pretence that the bulk of savings can be found by decreasing the individual cost is hard to justify.

It it seems a fact almost too obvious to state that the dramatic increase in the cost of prison has been driven by the dramatic increase in incarceration, particularly since the mid-1990s:

In order to accommodate this vastly increased population, the last Labour government increased spending on prisons by 40% from £2.5bn to £4bn in just five years, from 2003-04 to 2008-09.

But for this current crop of justice ministers, doing anything to address the breathtaking size of our prison population is a buck they would really rather pass. Jeremy Wright, the new prisons minister, told the Howard League for Penal Reform AGM on Wednesday the number of people behind bars was “none of my business”.

In such a climate of chronic overpopulation and resultant overspending, any talk of a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ is woefully optimistic, if not disingenuous. Unless the government addresses the factors that have really driven up the cost of prisons, little positive change, in either re-offending rates or taxpayer value, will be achieved.

Far from a revolution, the depressing status quo in justice looks ever more likely to be maintained.


1. Lord Ashcroft: Crime, Punishment and the People, Michael Ashcroft

2. Cost of prison: Table 1, Ministry of Justice (2011) Costs per place and costs per prisoner by individual prison, National Offender Management Service Annual Report and Accounts 2010-11: Management Information Addendum, London: Ministry of Justice

3. Reconviction: Table 19 and 7a, Ministry of Justice (2012) Proven Re-offending Statistics Quarterly Bulletin July 2009 to June 2010, London: Ministry of Justice

4. Nick Hardwick quote: HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, for England and Wales, Annual Report 2011–12

5. Grayling quote:

6. Oakwood cost:

7. Oakwood not being operational: Costs per place and costs per prisoner, National Offender Management Service, Annual Report and Accounts 2011-12, Management Information Addendum

8. Prison expenditure: HM Treasury, PESA 2011 section 4 – Country and regional analyses:

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