Select Committee on Home Affairs First Report


15. In this chapter we explain the context within which strategies of rehabilitation must be pursued: that of a sharp rise in the prison population, prison overcrowding with its attendant problems, and the high degree of social exclusion characteristic of the prison population. We look at the difficulties the Prison Service faces in providing purposeful activity within prisons, and at those caused by the current high level of transfers between prisons. We examine the high level of reconviction of ex-prisoners, and the appropriateness of reconviction rates as a measure of re-offending and therefore of the success of rehabilitation. We emphasise throughout that, although these various pressures and constraints on the Prison Service must be acknowledged, they must not be used as an excuse for neglecting the issue of rehabilitation.

The rise in the prison population

16. Any strategy for rehabilitating prisoners has to take account of the recent increase in the prison population and the current overcrowding in prisons. The following table shows the rise in the male prison population in England and Wales from 1900 to 2002.

Source: Prison Statistics England and Wales 2002, figure 1.2a

17. The number of prisoners in England and Wales has increased by more than 25,000 over the last ten years and continues to rise. The prison population reached its highest ever recorded figure of 75,544 in April 2004. The prison population on 19 November 2004 was 75,145, with 70,774 male prisoners and 4,371 female prisoners.[5]

England and Wales have the highest prison population rate in Europe. Our rate of imprisonment has risen dramatically over the last five years, from 125 per 100,000 of the national population in 1999 to 141 per 100,000 in 2004.[6] It is significantly higher than that of our Western European neighbours: for example, 44% higher than the equivalent rate in Germany (98 per 100,000) and 52% higher than that in France (93 per 100,000).[7] A table of comparative prison statistics for England and Wales and the two other European countries we visited, Sweden and Germany, is provided at the end of Annex 5.

18. The pie-chart below indicates the composition of the prison population by offender type in November 2003. Adult males constituted by far the largest prisoner group, comprising 65% of the prison population as compared to 4% adult female. Young offenders made up 12% of the prison population and (11% males and 1% female). Unconvicted prisoners—those on remand—made up 17% of the prison population.

Source: Home Office Prison Population Brief, November 2003

19. The steep rise in the prison population over the last decade does not appear to be attributable to an increase in the level of crime. Rather it arises from a significant increase in the proportion of offenders given a custodial sentence and an increase in the average length of prison sentences.[8] In 2003, 23,160 men were serving sentences of four years and over, constituting more than half of the sentenced male population. This compares with 11,360 in 1993, an increase of 104%. The number of prisoners serving short sentences has also increased, with the number of adults sent to prison for sentences of 6 months or less nearly doubling between 1993 and 2003.[9] In 2003, more than half of those sent to prison were there for jail terms of six months or less.[10] The chart below shows the breakdown of sentences between prison, community sentences and fines from 1992 to 2002, and clearly demonstrates a fall in the use of fines, an increase in community sentences, and a steep increase in prison sentences.

Source: Probation Statistics England and Wales 2002 (published January 2004), p 2

20. The graph on the following page provides a break down of the lengths of sentences of sentenced male, female and young male prisoners in 2003. 45% of male prisoners and 52% of young male prisoners were serving sentences of over four years.

Source: Home Office Prison Population Brief, November 2003

21. In contrast to the prison population figure, the overall crime rate has fallen by over 35% in the last decade. According to Home Office National Crime Statistics for June 2004, the risk of being a victim of crime is 25%, lower than it was in 1981, the year of the first British Crime Survey.[11]

22. People entering prison have typically experienced high levels of social exclusion. 27% of prisoners were taken into care as a child compared to 2% of the population. Two in three are unemployed, and half have run away from home as children. 66% of male and 55% of female sentenced prisoners have used drugs in the last year. 52% of male and 71% of female sentenced prisoners have no qualifications as compared to 15% of the general population. Two thirds of prisoners have numeracy skills at or below the level expected of an 11 year old. 50% have a reading ability and 82% have a writing ability at or below this level.[12] A report by the Cabinet Office's Social Exclusion Unit, suggests a potential cyclical pattern of cause and effect, with the imposition of custodial sentences, even short-term sentences, increasing the likelihood of a person re-offending. For example, a third of all offenders lose their home while in prison, two thirds lose their job, over a fifth face increased financial problems and over two-thirds lost contact with their family.[13]

23. The rise in the number of prisoners and the high level of social exclusion amongst offenders both raise serious questions about sentencing policy and the effectiveness of current measures to tackle social exclusion. Our inquiry did not examine these issues in depth. We acknowledge their importance. However, we reject any suggestions that the existence of these broader issues obviate the need to examine critically the treatment of prisoners in custody and the nature and scope of the prison rehabilitation regime. Changes in sentencing patterns and levels of social exclusion will take place only in the long term. Until then, the prison system will continue to have a significant impact on the lives of prisoners and wider society.

Prison overcrowding

24. Over the last 12 months, prison overcrowding has been at its highest recorded levels. At the end of October 2004, 82 of the 139 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded. The population in custody was 75,180, an increase of 1% on a year earlier. Occupancy level, based on official capacity, was at 106%. In May 2004 we were told that at that time 17,000 prisoners were held two to a cell designed for one.[14]

25. The Government has acknowledged the negative impact overcrowding has on the prison regime. Giving oral evidence to us in April 2003, the Home Secretary stated that overcrowding—

    "reduces the speed with which we can improve … purposeful activities. As you know I was responsible when I was Education Secretary for working with the then Home Secretary to transfer issues on literacy and numeracy, which are absolutely crucial to the avoidance of re-offending and to rehabilitation and, secondly, because I held the work brief at the time for setting in train the process of moving people into a situation of not only preparing for work but being able to reach out to employers … to actually get people into jobs… that is more difficult, not less, if the prison is overcrowded and if it is more difficult to organise those purposeful activities…"[15]

26. The Prison Service concedes that it is inevitable that at times of high population pressures, rehabilitative provision may become disrupted.[16] The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, told us that—

    "at every level of the prison system, overcrowding is having an effect on the ability of prisons to deliver rehabilitative programmes. In spite of additional resources, the movement of prisoners and the gap between the number of prisoners and the spaces available are making it very difficult to provide sufficient positive activity for enough prisoners." [17]

27. From our own investigations over the course of the inquiry and the oral and written evidence presented to us, it is clear that overcrowding is having a hugely damaging impact on the delivery of rehabilitative regimes across the prison estate, both in terms of quality and quantity of appropriate interventions. The challenge of delivering effective prison rehabilitation regimes is bound to be greater in overcrowded prisons. Nonetheless, models of good practice do exist and we discuss these later in this report. Regrettably, overcrowding is likely to remain a feature of our prison system for the foreseeable future. It should not be used to excuse failures to replicate and translate these models of good practice on a wider scale and to address areas of weakness.

Purposeful activity

28. 'Purposeful activity' within prison encompasses various activities including time spent at work, education, training, physical education, and other activities such as offending behaviour programmes; it does not include association with other prisoners or time spent outside the establishment.[18] Until 2004, the Prison Service had a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) target for purposeful activity. This was that every prisoner should spend on average 24 hours per week engaged in purposeful activity. The Prison Service has only met its purposeful activity KPI once in the last eight years. In 2002-03 only 44% of prisons met the purposeful activity target, with the average across the prison estate as a whole being 22.6 hours per prisoner each week spent in purposeful activity. Mr Martin Narey, the Chief Executive of NOMS, told us that in 2003 the Prison Service increased activity hours for prisoners by about two and half million; however, this increase "was absorbed entirely by the increase in the population of 2,000 people, so the average 23.4 [hours of purposeful activity per prisoner] did not shift at all despite this huge expansion in work." [19]

29. In July 2004 it was announced that in 2003-04 the average had been 23.2 hours per week, a small improvement on the previous year but still falling short of the target.[20] The Prison Service commented that

    "This KPI is becoming increasingly difficult to meet as population escalates. On average the number of weekly hours of activity per prisoner was below target, however there has been an improvement on last year and efforts continue to increase the amount of genuinely constructive activity available to prisoners."[21]

30. The Prison Service has recently abandoned the purposeful activity KPI. In February 2004, the Director General of the Prison Service, Mr Phil Wheatley, stated that the KPI was—

    "a target which was never properly resourced and was in danger of distracting us from our more important work in reducing re-offending, particularly delivering education and offending behaviour programmes."[22]

31. The Home Office has confirmed that with effect from 2004-05 purposeful activity has ceased to be a KPI. They gave the following explanation of this decision:

    "The focus of the Prison Service in terms of rehabilitation has changed from the hours of activity delivered to measures that reflect positive outcomes for prisoners prior to and after release. In recent years performance indicators and targets have been introduced in respect of basic skills qualifications, drug treatment programmes and the number leaving prison with an education, training or employment place arranged. These measures provide a clearer demonstration of work being undertaken in prisons to reduce re-offending."

The Home Office added that "Purposeful Activity remains an important measure and has been retained as lower level Key Performance Target for each establishment".[23]

32. The table and graph below illustrate the variation in hours of purposeful activity across the prison estate by prison category and activity type. It will be seen that there is a great degree of variation. On average, prisoners in open prisons spend the most time engaged in purposeful activity. Prisoners in dispersal and male local prisons spend the least time engaged in such activities.
Purposeful activity by category of prison

Classroom education
Vocational workshops
Production workshops
Total Purposeful Activity

Male local
Female local
Male closed YOI
Category B
Category C
Female closed
Male juvenile
Semi open
Male open
Male open YOI
Female open

Source: HMPS April 2004

33. As a means of cross-checking the Prison Service's statistics, we conducted a 'Prison Diary Project' aimed at finding out from prisoners themselves how much time they spend out of their cell engaged in useful activities. We wrote directly to 1,036 randomly selected prisoners in six establishments (HMPs Brockhill, Elmley, Springhill, Swaleside and Wolds, and HMYOI Aylesbury). The prisoners invited to take part in the project were provided with a diary booklet, which contained an entry for each day of the week, with questions to be completed by way of tick boxes. Each prisoner taking part was provided with a pre-paid envelope in which to return the completed diary. From analysis of the diaries, we have gained an insight into the number of hours prisoners in each of the six prisons routinely spend in education, vocational training, rehabilitative programmes, work schemes and leisure activities (e.g. gym, association). A total of 299 prison diaries were completed and returned to us. After allowing for 71 forms that were returned by the prisons because prisoners had been released or transferred, this gave a response rate of 31%. Full details of the methodology of this project are given in Annex 4.

34. The purposeful activity statistics obtained from our Prison Diary Project present a picture which is significantly bleaker than that provided by Home Office statistics. The chart below shows the proportion of prisoners who told us that they spend no time each week engaging in each main category of activity. These statistics raise serious concerns. Over 60% of prisoners told us that they spent no time in vocational training or offending behaviour programmes/drug treatment programmes, 47% spent no time in education and 31% no time in prison work. One in six spent no time during the week in sporting or gymnasium activities or in association.

35. One respondent to our Prison Diaries project contrasted the levels of purposeful activity in his present prison and in a previous prison which he claimed was comparable in size and other respects:

    "I find it hard to understand why I have spent 12 hrs out of my cell in the last 8 days … that is ridiculous when you know that in 8 days there are 192 hrs. I am serving 8 yrs I need to get as many courses under my belt as I can. So I ask for the things what interest me. They say there are long waiting lists. … Basically from the inside to me it feels like we have been locked away and forgotten about to give the public a break. The jail I'm in now should operate no different from the one I just came from they was poor staffed and managed to get us out of our cell 43 hrs in 8 days which is a massive difference. I wake up at 745 am and am lucky to get a full 30 mins on the exercise yard. Then I am locked away until 6 pm. Association till 745 pm that has been my routine. All locking prisoners up does is mentally scars us.[24]

36. The Prison Diary responses revealed that, in general, most prisons that had a particularly high level of one type of purposeful activity had correspondingly low rates of other types of activity. Hence HMPs Springhill and Swaleside, which had high levels of participation in prison work, had lower than average levels of education and vocational training courses. HMP Brockhill and HMYOI Aylesbury had higher levels of education and vocational training courses, but lower levels of prisoners engaged in work. HMP Wolds was something of an exception, with prisoners having above-average levels of activity in education, vocational training and prison work as well as gym, sports and association. A more detailed analysis of the prison regimes operating at the six prison establishments which took part in our Prison Diary Project is provided at Annex 4.

37. The Prison Service has repeatedly failed to meet its target of providing an average of 24 hours' worth of purposeful activity for each prisoner per week. The situation may be even more serious than the official figures suggest. Data from our Prison Diaries Project, based on direct contacts with prisoners, indicates that disturbingly high proportions of prisoners are engaged in little or no purposeful activity. Very few prisons provide for adequate amounts of purposeful activity across all, or even most, or the main categories of such activity. The reasons for this include overcrowding and disruptions to educational, vocational and treatment programmes caused by prisoner transfers, reduced prison staffing levels and generally poor administration. The consequences for prisoners are too many hours 'banged up' up their cells, with an adverse impact on their mental and physical health, and missed opportunities for rehabilitation.

38. It is regrettable that the purposeful activity Key Performance Indicator has been abandoned. Although the Home Office claims that this reflects a change in focus from "hours of activity" to "measures that reflect positive outcomes", it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the KPI has been dropped to avoid embarrassment arising from the Prison Service's continuing failure to meet the target. We welcome the introduction of performance measures and targets relating to particular qualifications obtained and programmes attended. However, we believe that a target relating to overall hours spent in purposeful activity is useful as a means of monitoring the level of such activity and a stimulus to providing it. We recommend that the KPI should be reinstated.

Management of transfers

39. The steep rise in the prison population has meant that transfers between prisons occur more frequently, as prisoners are moved around to fill available space. This in turn causes disruption to rehabilitation programmes across the estate.

40. In 2000-01 there were at least 60,000 transfers between prisons. This was in the context of an overall prison population of about 65,000. In 2003-04 there was a massive increase, to over 100,000 prisoner transfers.[25] At the end of February 2003, 27,000 prisoners (over one third of the prison population) were held over 50 miles from their committal court town and 12,500 were held over 100 miles away.[26] As a result of the current levels of transfers, prisoners often cannot obtain access to the rehabilitation programmes they need, or they are transferred from a prison before they have a chance to start or when they are in the middle of the programme they need. HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Ms Anne Owers, has criticised the Prison Service's failure to limit and effectively manage transfers in order to minimise their impact on the prison rehabilitative regime:

    "transfers do have a huge effect [on rehabilitation]… I do not think it is always managed as well as it could be. I do recognise that the pressure on the front end of the prison system at the moment means that the pressure on managers and those managing the population is to find spaces, but it does have a very damaging effect. I think we need to look at it more from a regional area focus…"[27]

41. We are critical of the management of transfers of prisoners across the prison estate which appears to be more ad hoc and pragmatic than strategic in design. The very high levels of transfers have a direct and significant negative impact on rehabilitation measures, both through disruption caused to intervention programmes and failure to provide prisoners with the particular interventions they need, as identified through assessment and sentence planning.

42. The Committee was impressed with the manner in which transfers are handled in Germany, which is based on a federal system. On conviction, offenders are transferred back to prison in their home region (Land). This has the four-fold benefit of (i) reducing transfers during sentence, (ii) increasing stability in sentence planning, (iii) allowing prisoners to maintain links with family and local community, and (iv) assisting prisoners' resettlement on release. We recommend that the National Offender Management Service turn its attention to reducing transfer rates as part of its regionalisation policy.

Reconviction rates

43. Reconviction is generally used as a measure of re-offending. The table below sets out the two-year reconviction rates for those given community penalties and those given custodial sentences in 1999. 59% of adult offenders discharged from prison in 1999 were reconvicted within two years of discharge.[28] The reconviction rate for young offenders over the same period is higher than those for adult offenders, standing at 74% in 1999 for young male offenders. The Social Exclusion Unit has assessed that re-offending by ex-prisoners costs society at least £11 billion per year.[29]Two year reconviction rates for those given community penalties and those given custodial sentences (1999)

Community Penalty
Custodial sentence
All persons

44. It is arguable that two-year reconviction rates are unsatisfactory yardsticks against which to measure re-offending rates, for several reasons:

  • Not all offenders who re-offend will be caught or prosecuted.
  • First offenders and those subject to more intensive supervision are more likely to be caught re-offending.
  • Comparing reconviction rates for different sentence types or different sentence lengths can be misleading.
  • An ex-prisoner's further offence or offences may be less serious and more infrequent than their previous offences.
  • Some serious offences, like domestic murder, have very low re-offending rates.

Two-year reconviction rates are therefore not sufficiently sophisticated to present a completely accurate reflection of the offending behaviour habits of ex-prisoners.

45. Comparisons between the reconviction rates for community punishments and those for custodial sentences are also problematic. As the two types of disposal are generally targeted at different types of offender, it is not easy to conclude definitively whether one is more effective than the other. Further, the likelihood that offenders will offend again after going through the criminal justice system is influenced by a prisoner's characteristics and criminal history.[30]

46. We conclude that reconviction rates should remain the central focus against which re-offending is measured. However, the two-year post-release snapshot is a blunt measuring tool. Currently no differentiation is made between different types of offenders. As such, the current measure is too basic to provide an accurate assessment of the effective prison rehabilitation regime. We suggest the adoption of a more sophisticated measure which includes criteria based on an offender's sentence length and offence type.

5   HM Prison Service Prison Population and Accommodation Briefing available at Back

6   Based on an estimated national population of 52.85 million at end of June 2004 (Office for National Statistics figures); Walmsley (2004) World Prison Population List, Findings 234, London: Home Office RDS Directorate Back

7   Prison Reform Trust statistical briefing (February 2004), p 3 Back

8   For a detailed discussion of the reasons for an increase in the prison population, see Crime, Courts and Confidence: Report of an Independent Inquiry into Althernatives to Prison, chaired by Lord Coulsfield (TSO, November 2004), pp 18-19 Back

9   Home Office, Offender Management Caseload Statistics 2003 (December 2004), para 8.5, table 8.1 Back

10   Home Office, Population in Custody Quarterly Brief, January to March 2004 (2004) Back

11   Home Office, Crime in England and Wales: Quarterly Update to June 2004, published on 21 October 2004 Back

12   Report by the Social Exclusion Unit, Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners (ODPM), July 2002 Back

13   Social Exclusion Unit, Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners (July 2002) Back

14   Prison Service Monthly Bulletin, October 2004; Population in Custody, October 2004; Q 483; International Centre for Prison Studies, King's College London, Prison Brief for United Kingdom (November 2004) Back

15   Q 69 Back

16   Ev 149 (para 5.1.2) Back

17   Ev 208 (para 6) Back

18   The full range of activities defined as 'purposeful activity' also includes "tackling substance abuse, including prisoner drug rehabilitation and detoxification programmes, anti-bullying initiatives, pre-release work, family visits and a range of work responsibilities within the prison and in prison farms and gardens" (Ev 301). Back

19   Q508 Back

20   Prison Service press release, 15 July 2004 Back

21   Home Office Planning Group, Briefing on Prison Service KPI Performance for 2003-04 (issued 8 July 2004) Back

22   From a speech delivered to the Prison Service annual conference; quoted in Enver Solomon, A Measure of Success: An analysis of the Prison Service's performance against its Key Performance Indicators 2003-04 (Prison Reform Trust, August 2004), p 11 Back

23   Ev 302 Back

24   Evidence not printed Back

25   Ev 275 Back

26   Ev 203 (para 6.1) Back

27   Q 167 Back

28   Home Office, Prison Statistics England and Wales 2002 (2003) Back

29   Social Exclusion Unit, Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners (July 2002) Back

30   Ibid. Back

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