Call to stop 'revolving door' to prison as recalls to custody soar

By agency reporter
August 17, 2016

Against a backdrop of violence and deaths behind bars, the number of people in prison due to recall has soared by 15 per cent in a year and is now 55 times greater than it was in 1993, according to evidence being submitted to the United Nations by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Thousands of people have been recalled to custody in recent months, putting additional pressure on prisons that were already struggling to cope with chronic overcrowding, alarming statistics on safety and deep budget cuts.

It follows the implementation of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014, which enabled the part-privatisation of the probation service and for the first time extended licence conditions to people who had served prison sentences of less than 12 months.

In its evidence to the United Kingdom Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights, the Howard League argues that the possibility of recall to prison as a consequence of a breach of licence should be removed.

New crimes can be dealt with separately through the usual channels, the submission suggests, and other community penalties can be imposed for breaches of licence that do not amount to a criminal offence.

The Howard League’s proposal, which would ease prison numbers, would not require new legislation.

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:Why are we sending men and women back to prison when they have not committed new crimes?

“Far from transforming rehabilitation, privatising the probation service and making more people subject to licence conditions has sped up the revolving door, returning people to prison and putting more pressure on a system that fails everyone. Removing the possibility of recall to custody would be a more sensible way to help people who are struggling to comply with their licence conditions.”

The Howard League’s submission draws attention to “a lack of due process in the recall system”.

It states: “In the majority of cases the initial decision to recall to custody is made by a single probation officer and invariably rubber-stamped by the Secretary of State for Justice.

“The reasons for which people can be recalled are broad and often vague. They include: failing to be ‘of good behaviour’, ‘failure to keep in touch’ and ‘drugs/alcohol’ amongst others. These encompass a wide range of behaviours which would be of no interest to the authorities if a person were not on licence.”

The submission suggests that there are “real risks” that recall decisions could be motivated by financial factors now that the majority of the probation service has been sold to private companies.

The National Audit Office has raised concerns that private companies will be less motivated to trigger breach proceedings as such actions could affect their performance data. Conversely, the Howard League is concerned that companies could be encouraged to trigger recall as early as possible to avoid investing in people who they think are doomed to fail.

As the prison population has grown, safety in jails has deteriorated significantly. Ministry of Justice statistics released last month (July 2016) showed that 321 people died in prison custody during the year to the end of June 2016 – an increase of 30 per cent on the previous 12 months. They included 105 people who are thought to have taken their own lives.

Reported incidents of self-harm in prisons have risen by 27 per cent in a year. There were 34,586 reported incidents in the 12 months to the end of March 2016 – one every 15 minutes.

The number of assaults on prison staff has increased by 40 per cent. There were 5,423 incidents during the 12 months to the end of March 2016 – at a rate of almost 15 per day.

The Howard League’s submission states that England and Wales imprisons more people with indeterminate sentences – life and Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) – than the other 46 countries of the Council of Europe combined.

According to the latest Ministry of Justice figures available, there are more than 4,000 people inprison serving an IPP sentence. More than 1,300 of them have been in prison for at least five years beyond their tariff expiry date.

The submission states: “Recent figures from the Ministry of Justice show that IPP prisoners are much more likely to self-harm than other prisoners, including those serving life sentences.

“It is crucial that the government acts to speed up the release process for the remaining IPP prisoners and plans are put together for their support in the community.”

Changes to the release system for prisoners serving indeterminate sentences have been suggested by the Howard League and the Parole Board. In a statement last month, the Ministry of Justice said that the suggestion had been “taken on board”.

The Howard League’s submission raises concerns about the use of solitary confinement in prisons in England and Wales. It refers to a recent Supreme Court judgment that highlighted the risks to the physical and mental health and even life of a prisoner subject to a prolonged period of solitary confinement.

The submission also includes a section on children’s rights in prison. It states that, while the number of children in prison has reduced significantly, those that remain tend to: be spending longer in prison; come disproportionately from black and minority ethnic communities; have complex needs and contact with the care system; be at increased risk of the use of force and solitary confinement; and have virtually no access to effective redress.

The average length of time spent in prison by a child increased from 85 days in 2012-13 to 90 days in 2013-14.

* Read the Howard League's submission to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights here

* The Howard League for Penal Reform


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