England's prison crisis

Why rehabilitation and reformation should be a key priority

Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash

Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash

Their towering structures of steel cast shadows upon forgotten corners.

Their imposing walls conceal stories etched in despair and redemption.

Their iron gates groan and their heavy doors creak.

Yet, amidst the cold confines where the stale air holds the weight of unprotected dreams, there is a breath of possibility.

A prospect of transformation in a system tainted by the indelible ink of flawed justice.

Photo by Ye Jinghan on Unsplash

Photo by Ye Jinghan on Unsplash

"It's unconscionable that people often have to commit crime in order to access services that would help them."
Rob Preece - Howard League for Penal Reform

In an era where the rate of imprisonment raises critical questions about the effectiveness of punitive measures, the unfolding narrative of penal reform aims to reshape the very foundations of our justice system.

The prison estate in England and Wales is currently made up of 120 prisons.

In recent months, the discussion on penal reform has gained momentum, echoing the collective call for a re-evaluation of our approach to the way we punish and rehabilitate our prisoners.

Policymakers and advocates are seeking to address issues from overcrowded prisons to the lack of support upon release.

This not only reflects a societal awakening to the shortcomings of punitive strategies but also emphasises on rehabilitation as a cornerstone for lasting societal change.

Overcrowding in prisons

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Persistent concerns surround the suitability of the prison estate, a product of numerous run down and overcrowded facilities.

The maintenance backlog in prisons, estimated at around £1 billion as of March 2021, exacerbates these issues.

Prison population figures continue to rise to an all time high, with 87,930 prisoners currently in prisons across England and Wales.

Research from The House of Commons Library shows that 20.6% of prisoners in England and Wales experienced crowded conditions on an average day in 2022.

According to data from the Howard League the five most overcrowded prisons in the UK are currently: Leeds, (171%), Durham, (169%), Wandsworth, (163%), Preston, (156%) and Swansea, (156%).

A report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), responsible for overseeing government expenditures, revealed that the prison population was at around 99% (84,400) of safe capacity in March 2023.

The government has since projected that the prison population in England and Wales could surpass a safe capacity, projecting a prison population of 93,100 to 106,300 by March 2027.

Despite the increase in population, prison staff numbers are continuing to decline.

In 2021-2022, 8% of all probation officers left the service.

But what measures are the government taking to reduce the pressure on prison capacity?

On 16 October 2023, the Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, announced measures on sentences of less than 12 months in prison to be suspended, as well as financial support to tackle the overcrowding in prisons.

Chalk noted: "The prison population is now greater than it has ever been." 

What will suspending short sentences mean?

 The suspended sentence means that the person does not have to go to prison, provided they commit no further offences and comply with any requirements for the relevant period.

The change has been welcomed by prison reform organisation Howard League for Penal Reform, who campaign for meaningful change to the criminal justice system in order to achieve less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.

Communications manager Rob Preece said: "The more contact somebody has with the criminal justice system the more likely they are to become entrenched within it and that can lead to more serious offending.

"Simply being sent to prison for longer and longer will only contribute to prison overcrowding.

"We want to see lasting change in terms of sentencing reform, so we aren't constantly putting more and more people into a system that fails them."

He added: "It's an opportune moment to make that change of direction because we've seen a significant increase in interest in what's happening in prison."

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

As it stands, the prison population in England and Wales is nearly double the level it was three decades ago.

Following this, the government announced plans to build 20,000 modern rehabilitative prison spaces, allocating up to £400 million for additional prison places to accommodate over 800 new cells.

The Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk stated: "I have been candid from the moment I took on this role that our custodial estate is under pressure.

"We must reform the justice system so that it keeps the worst of society behind bars, rehabilitates offenders who will be let out and presents the least serious, lowest risk offenders with a path away from a life of crime.

"That matters, because intelligent reform means less crime."

In response, Preece said: "The prisons we already have are overcrowded and understaffed.

"If we can't safely run the prisons we already have we shouldn't be building new ones."


On September 6, 2023, Daniel Khalife, a 21-year-old former British Army soldier facing terrorism charges and awaiting trial, managed to escape from HM Prison Wandsworth in London while on remand.

His escape prompted a nationwide police search, and after three days on the run, the Metropolitan Police captured Khalife in Northolt, London, on the morning of September 9.

It is suspected that he escaped by securing himself to the bottom of a food delivery lorry while working in the prison's kitchen.

On September 21, Khalife pleaded not guilty to the charge of escaping from lawful custody.

The reaction

In the case of Wandsworth, the prison had capacity for 900 men, yet at the time of Khalife's escape more than 1,600 men were imprisoned there.

Prison inspectors stated that more than 30% of prison officers were either absent or unable to work their full duties.

Peerce said: "Prisons are largely an unreported world so the high-profile escape from Wandsworth prison certainly focused minds.

"[At Howard League] we're very keen to harness this new level of interest and make more people aware of what's happening and lift the lid on prisons.

"Perhaps it’s not all together surprising that there would be a high-profile incident of that nature."






Photo by Rainer Bleek on Unsplash

Photo by Rainer Bleek on Unsplash

Prisoner reoffending costs the taxpayer £18 billion a year.

According to government research, individuals in stable housing are 50% less likely to commit further crimes, leading to a reduction in the cost of reoffending to society.

Proven reoffending is defined by the government as any offence committed in a one year follow-up period and receiving a court conviction, caution, reprimand or warning in the one year follow-up.

This graph shows the proven reoffending rates from January 2018 to December 2021 which shows a 3.3% decrease during this period.

A series of institutional failures in the prison and probation services are charted at the inevitability that released prisoners will return to prison.

Peerce said: "Losing jobs, accommodation, relationships and support structures is really damaging and nobody wants to see that revolving door aspect that happens so often within prisons.

"Is it any wonder in those conditions that people cannot put crime behind them.

"We need to invest in education, jobs, schools, hospitals and services that can help people."

Nationally, 45% of prison-leavers reoffend within a year of release.

For many they are released into homelessness with a lack of basic support.

But for those supported by Switchback, a rehabilitation charity that has offered one-to-one support and mentoring to over 2,500 former prisoners in London since 2008, they can rely on the available assistance.

The figure for reoffending amongst Switchback trainees falls to just 9%.

Daniel Mills, policy and public affairs manager at Switchback said: "Not enough supports focuses on the individual.

"At Switchback we focus on what happens when people leave prison and there's an absence of support and very little relational one-to-one support to help somebody through their journey."

According to data from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), 11,435 individuals were released from prison into homelessness during the 2018-2019 period.

Probation services face challenges in supporting rehabilitation if people are not in stable accommodation.

Having a stable address is essential for individuals to successfully reintegrate into the community.

Mills added: "There is a lack of options and a lot needs to be done.

"We need to think about there being enough temporary housing available for people when they leave prison and about how people can be supported into long term housing as well."


In 2021, 7,554 people came out of prison into homelessness, figures from the government revealed.

That means more than 7,500 people spent their first night out of a cell on the streets, with only their clothes from prison to keep them warm.

Mills said: "The men we work with often get released straight into homelessness and have nowhere to live and this is the biggest barrier preventing people from reintegrating into society.

"Some can walk straight into a job, but it's harder for a lot of people and that process can be overwhelming enough by itself.

"This often makes it very tempting for people to go back into a life that they used to know when they cannot make money."

Employment upon release plays a crucial role in people rebuilding their lives after prison and ultimately lowers the likelihood of reoffending and future victims of crime.

New government statistics reveal the number of ex-offenders securing jobs within six months has more than doubled, jumping from 14% to 30% since April 2021.

Switchback continue to contribute to these figures by offering its trainees a pathway into employment upon release.

Its employer partners, The Dusty Knuckle bakery and EXO bikes give trainees the opportunity to learn real work skills and become exposed to workplace training.

Mills said seeing people's confidence and lifted spirits has been one of the best things about working with former prisoners.

He added: "In terms of skills we have seen people moving into really different lines of work.

"People have become successful in corporate jobs and working as chefs.

"Only one in 10 people that work with Switchback end up going back to prison and we think that's really strong evidence about what can happen when people get the right level of support."


Charities like Switchback have emerged as a source of hope for individuals transitioning out of prison in a period where centrally-funded alternatives are facing hardship.

Additional efforts are needed to provide support for individuals leaving the prison system to break the ever-lasting cycle of perpetual crime.

Peerce states that people should have access to services without having to go into the criminal justice system.

He said: "Let's look into funding services that tackle issues effectively rather than wasting yet more money on prisons where we lock away those problems and try to bolt the stable door.

"I think most people would far rather the crime didn't happen in the first place, so we need to look beyond punishment and beyond imprisonment."