The failure of UK prisons and the role of civil society

The prison system in the UK is failing its prisoners and employees. Our prisons are overcrowded, dangerous, under-resourced and the prison population are suffering, writes Olivia Beer.

Despite a virtually permanent programme of prison building, overcrowding has been a constant in the prison service since 1994. Approximately 21,000 people still share cells meant for a single occupant, often eating their meals in the same space used to go to the bathroom.

One direct result of overcrowding is increased violence and unsafe conditions for both inmates and workers. Currently, prisons are the most unsafe they have ever been and nearly half of men (48%) and over half of all women (52%) said they felt unsafe at some point whilst in the prison system.

The government has committed to build nine new prisons in a bid to modernize and expand the prison estate and tackle the overcrowding issue. However, the plan focusses on reducing overcrowding rather than eliminating it completely. As the prison population is set to grow rapidly by around 1,600 people by 2020 it is unlikely that these new prison estates – if completed within the promised time frame – will prove a viable solution for the problem. Moreover, no money will go towards current run-down prisons like HMP Wandsworth, originally opened in 1851. The building is run down and in desperate need of renovation to ensure the overcrowded prison is safe for its 1,500 prisoners to live in.

So how do we fix this? One solution to limit overcrowding is to commit to eliminating sentences less than a year in length, instead replacing them with community service and rehabilitation programs. Over 66,000 people were sent to prison to serve a sentence in the first half of 2017 alone and over half of those sentenced were only imprisoned for six months or less. Short sentences are detrimental to the progress, mental health and well-being of the prisoners, and recidivism rates for these offenders remain stubbornly high. The government do not need to waste money and time on expensive short sentences that do nothing to promote rehabilitation and reform amongst prisoners.

If prisons continue to be overcrowded and understaffed, they will be unable to help foster rehabilitation amongst the prison population. Prisoners have less time to exercise, socialize and take part in educational training programmes, which has a negative effect on the mental health and well-being of prisoners, whilst sometimes fostering negative, violent behaviour.

There is no magic bullet to help completely overhaul such a deeply flawed system but there are ways to make positive changes. Civil society organizations like BEST, Befriending and Support Team for Foreign Nationals in HMP Wandsworth plays an important role by focusing on an area where more skills, experience and time are required than can be provided by the prison service alone. By conducting fortnightly visits at the request of inmates, BEST works with the prison to meet essential support needs and enhance the well-being of inmates, reducing tensions and enabling prisoners to make better use of prison facilities and better structure their time in prison, to build both self-respect and to plan a crime-free future career.

Another function of civil society organizations is to take a pro-active role in supporting the probation and prison Services in helping to successfully integrate ex-offenders into society. First, in helping to deal with such formidable challenges as no work, no home, no money, and no meaningful support – BEST can (and does) allocate desperately needed emergency funding and reliable pastoral support. By providing consistent, structured support of the kind needed to foster positive relations, this sends an unmistakable signal that a crime-free life after prison is a realistic goal and one they will be supported in achieving.

The benefit of this is kind of support threefold. Firstly, a high number of men are released from prison with no food or money. BEST help resettle, re-establish and fund men post-release to prevent newly released men from being homeless. Secondly, there is a large body of evidence to suggest that financial support and befriending can help prevent inmates from reoffending, saving the government money and preventing more men from enduring the repetitive cyclical process of recidivism. Lastly, BEST can continue to foster positive relationships with prisoners established whilst serving out their sentences, providing consistency to men whose connection with professionals can often be fleeting and disrupted, only further inhibiting rehabilitation and stunting wellbeing amongst men who need consistent, structured support.

The UK prison system has been under pressure for a long time, making news recently for overcrowding, high rates of violence and drug use. Whilst there is no quick fix, there are civil society organizations that are making a positive and effective contribution to the lives of men and women who want to reform and live crime-free lives. By working in tandem with mission-driven organizations, highly vulnerable men and women can start to contribute positively to society in prison and beyond, through building positive relations and starting to recognize their self-worth.

I think we can all agree that prison should be a place of reform, reflection and self-improvement, no man should ever feel forgotten. There are resources and organizations that can help.


Author: Olivia Beer

Olivia is trustee and head of Training at BEST, Befriending and Support Team for Foreign Nationals in HMP Wandsworth. Previously she visited foreign nationals at immigration removal centres across the UK on a voluntary basis as part of SOAS detainee support group.

BEST At Wandsworth

From The Bulletin, HMP Wandsworth, 16 August 2019  

BEST at Wandsworth… 

As BEST may be unfamiliar to a lot of readers, I’ll use some FAQ’s to explain our role in the prison and illustrate how we try to fulfil that role. Apart from shedding a bit more light on BEST, I hope this will encourage colleagues to refer suitable cases relating to Foreign Nationals to BEST and see if we can return some of the magnificent cooperation that has been so consistently shown to us ever since we started working in HMPW just over 2 years ago. 

What is BEST? BEST is a charity whose full name is BEST, Befriending and Support Team for Foreign Nationals in HMP Wandsworth. Apart from being a very welcome abbreviation for that unpronounceable mouthful, BEST is also an acronym for our key activities – BEfriending, Supporting, and working as a Team. The Team is about 30 volunteers, most of whom conduct Social Visits once a fortnight to FN’s who have requested a BEST visitor. At present, only two of us operate regularly in-prison – Lavinia Aleri (2 days a week) and myself, Geoff Smith (5 days a week). 

Why Foreign Nationals? FN’s comprise about 30% of the prison population. And dealing with them often presents time-consuming challenges that, if not dealt with in a timely manner, can lead to further problems down the line. The most obvious example is language, which is a frequent barrier to communication and, in extreme cases, can be a total block. Rare as they may be, these extreme cases follow a clear pattern: if a newly inducted foreign prisoner can’t communicate at all he is likely to be on an ACCT, very possibly on constant observation; however, stress levels fall dramatically as soon as communications are established. 

And that last point – about establishing communications and trying, not just to reduce stress levels, but also getting FN’s pro-actively engaged in taking responsibility for their own future – comes to the heart of what BEST is trying to achieve. It also explains why we work so frequently and closely with Safer Custody and Chaplaincy. In short, BEST aims to reduce and, where possible, overcome barriers that can prevent prisoners from participating in normal prison life, encouraging them to cooperate and adapt to a healthy prison regime. 

What does BEST do? One of the first things we do is to manage expectations, which is why, after introducing BEST, we say: “When you tell us how you want us to help, it’s very likely we can’t do what you want – but so long as it’s reasonable we’ll take it seriously and do what we can.” Wherever things go from there, talking helps to reduce stress and, by sharing in words whatever is uppermost on their minds, that puts in place a platform – however shaky it may seem to start with – on which they can build confidence in themselves and the custodial environment in which they are living. 

In an awful lot of cases that is the most important service BEST renders i.e. by letting prisoners talk and listening empathetically to what they have to say, this enables them to connect with reality and cultivate an awareness that – given the right attitude and a bit of oomph-from-within – they can actually cope.       As regards the specifics, it’s up to prisoners to tell BEST how they would like us to help. In over 80% of cases, this involves one or more of the following: help in applying for healthcare, education, work, or exercise; guidance relating to deportation / extradition / transfer / or repatriation; help in getting legal representation i.e. appointing, chasing or replacing a lawyer; difficulties connecting with loved ones e.g. no PIN or telephone credit; complications with property e.g. lost clothes, need to access a mobile to get a number; and enquiries about complaints e.g. finding the right form, help to complete it in English etc. 

Referrals – we live off, and warmly welcome, referrals, usually coming from CM’s, SO’s and Officers on the Wings, Key Workers, Safer Custody, Chaplaincy, Immigration, CRC, StandOut and, of course, the prisoners themselves – either from Foreign National Reps or directly from prisoners approaching us on the Wings. Prisoners can also access BEST by completing a BEST Visit Request Form and, as of early August, via the prison kiosks. 

Crucially, because this is the real benchmark for whether BEST is working properly, we aim to be a resource that colleagues in the Prison Service and Healthcare know they can call on to help when working with Foreign Nationals – part of the same system, helping to lift some of the load, relieving some of the pressure, and cooperating in the same large-spirited and professional way that has been so consistently shown towards BEST ever since, back in 2017, we started out as “new kids on the block”. Because, when all’s said and done, it’s participating in that bigger, inclusive team that enables everything BEST does in HMPW and makes working here such an energising and pleasurable experience. 

Geoff Smith – Director, BEST