Are Prison System in Crisis?

Published: 2021-07-31 06:50:08
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Category: Crime, Criminology, Criminal Law

Type of paper: Essay

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The term crisis refers to an intense time of difficulty, trouble or danger, or a time when difficult decisions must be made. However, in the context of the prison system, it has to be looked at differently. This can be seen throughout the essay in how there have been times of danger, and difficult policy decisions made. In looking at whether these problems are important to the prison system, it has to be looked at whether it is hindering the purposes and objectives of prison. It is also worth noting that the prison system has been regarded in being in crisis for many years by the media and academics (Cavadino & Dignan, 2007).
Thus it would appear the `crisis’ hasn’t been at one specific time its been gradually building year after year. The purpose of prison in today’s society is to treat prisoners in a secure and safe facility, where they will be treated humanely, decently, and lawfully. This is as well as protecting the public, ensuring the prisoner is punished for the crimes committed, as well as also helping them rehabilitate themselves. These aims are issued by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS).
The way in which NOMS are able to do this is by their close relationship with the probation service, gathering of statistics and also the setting of key performance indicators. Key performance indicators can be targets such as reoffending rate going down by 10% from the previous year, no category A escapes, drug misuse rates and percentage of prisoners in overcrowded accommodation (Leech, 2009). The gathering of all this information means that officials can now monitor the performance of prisons and see if they are fulfilling their functions.

If they are not then it is reasonable to suggest that the prison is in crisis and needs to address the issues, which are causing the problems. In identifying whether there is a crisis in the prison system, different thoughts of criminology offer different explanations. One account that explains the crisis is the Orthodox. This account suggests that the crisis consists of many different components which all intertwine to combine to a crisis (Tredwell, 2006). It also suggests that the crisis itself is not one of the whole penal system but one just within the prison system itself (Cavadino & Dignan, 2007).
The first factor that orthodox criminologists address is the effect the population of prisons have on the system. Through out the history of the prison system in particular the twentieth century it can be seen that the prison population has been steadily rising. For example in 1960 the average prison population was 26,198, in 1990 43,378, compare this to 2011 which was 81,763(Berman, 2012:18). As this evidence shows, through out the twentieth and twenty first century the prison population has been rising. This increases the demand on prisons and prison staff to be able to deal with the higher numbers.
This is a major problem for the prison system if the trend is not altered, it will keep on increasing year by year as the evidence suggests. This problem directly leads on to fact that prisons are overcrowded. Overcrowding in prisons according to orthodox account makes it much harder for prisons to be able to meet their purpose of rehabilitating offenders. Overcrowding takes place ‘when the number of prisoners held exceeds the establishments Certified Normal Accommodation (CNA)’ (Berman 2012:11). CNA ‘represents the good, decent standard of accommodation the service aspires to provide all prisoners.
Any places above the CNA are referred to as overcrowding places’ (Jewkes & Bennett, 2008:38). In England and Wales in 2012 over sixty two per cent of the prison estate was overcrowded according to CNA statistics (Berman, 2012: 11). Looking at this, in relation to the aims of having humane conditions for prisoners to live in, the prison system is not meeting its targets. Prisons shouldn’t be overcrowded, but the majority are meaning that more prisoners are sharing cells then what is intended. In relation to rehabilitation it is clear to see the higher number in prison the less resources will be available for prisoners.
The less resources available to prisoners will mean less time spent on individual cases limiting the chances of success in reformation. High Prison population and Overcrowding also lead on to the fact that there will be problems within the prison concerning staff. One of the problems in terms of staff will be the numbers available. With the increasing numbers, and the reductions in the prison budget, means the staff to prisoner ratio will continue to worsen. With this means that the supervision of prisoners will be less available which will reduce time out of cells and time in classes working towards rehabilitation.
This also leads on to another problem within staff in prisons, in terms of their relation with the home office. The more prisoners coming into prisons increases the workload for the staff, this is without the relief of additional staff being employed. Staff unrest can lead to industrial action, which will lead to the breakdown of the prison service. The final factors that need considering in this account is the effect all of the above has on the security in prisons. Prisoners breaking out of prison are seen as causing massive problems.
This is relatively non-existent in prisons today, since 1995/1996 there has been no escape from prisons (NOMS annual report 2011: 5). This means that in terms of protecting the public with the high prison population and no escapes the prison system is operating very efficiently. Another aspect that has to be looked at here is the fact of security inside prison. Riots are still present, as seen last year in the Ford open prison riots. This would suggest that in some instances prisons are not actually capable of controlling their prisoners.
Riots are seen clear evidence of a crisis in prison but riots are very rare in the prison system. From all of this stated above it is clear that the orthodox account, is still very relevant in todays prison society. In particular is the issue of high prison population leading to increased overcrowding levels. Which in 2012 are at an all time high. However one development to this theory comes from Lord Woolf who agreed with orthodox accounts of security and control being crucial to a stable prison system, put also placed importance on justice. Justice refers to the obligation of the Prison Service to treat prisoners with humanity and fairness and to prepare them for their return to the community in a way which makes it less likely that they will reoffend’ (Woolf 1991: para 9. 20). This quote coming from Woolf’s report in 1992 can be seen still to be extremely relevant today, when looked at the prison systems aims and purposes, as mentioned earlier in the essay. This makes Woolf’s recommendation crucial to looking at what the state of the prison system is in today.
In terms of conditions there are said to be three elements, which influence the quality of life for prisoners. The first being the wretchedness of the physical accommodation, the second being the regime the prisoners are subject to on a daily basis. The final one being the difficulty prisoners face in maintaining relationships with family and friends whilst inside (Cavadino & Dignan: 2007). In looking at the physical accommodation of prisoners in today’s society the view is that prison is much like a ‘holiday camp’ for prisoners. He said he would make sure jails – dubbed ‘holiday camps’ by critics – are no longer seen as places which convicts ‘enjoy’ (Gayling, cited in The Mail, 2012). This quote supports the view that contrast to back in 1992 prisons are now at a state where they could be said to be to nice for prisoners. This results in the fact that prisoners become to comfortable with prison life that once they leave, going back to prison seems very attractive to them. This would suggest that the prison system is failing to do one of its more traditional roles of deterring prisoners from crime.
Therefore it is failing in another one of its purposes adding to the evidence that the prison system is not working. The second component of justice in prison is preparing the prisoner for life back in the community. This is tackling what put them in there for the first place through rehabilitation. This is done through various programmes such as, offender behaviour programmes, drug addiction programmes, alcohol, work experience and educational programmes. In addressing this essay question, one of the fundamental goals in prison today is rehabilitation of offenders.
If rehabilitation was working then the rates of re-offending should be low. In 2010 around 170,000 offenders committed a proven re-offence within a year, providing a re-offending rate of 26. 7 per cent (Ministry of Justice, 2012). This statistic shows that in society right now a significant amount of the prison population do re-offend. Relating this to purpose of prison today it is clear that it is failing in rehabilitating offenders. Strengthening the belief that the prison system is in crisis. This essay has addressed the purposes of prison today and how they match up to accounts of what a crisis is by criminologists.
It is clear using the orthodox account and Lord Woolf that the prison is in crisis. The prison population is at a record high, as are overcrowding levels as well as re-offending rates. This all suggests that the prison system is unable to match their purposes, and fulfil their aims in modern prisons systems, so it is in a state of crisis. However, to just say it is the prison system that is a in a state of crisis would be a very narrow approach to the issue. One crucial aspect to look at when examining the prison system is penal policy, and most importantly would be sentencing policy.
Sentencing can be seen as a fundamental component of the prisons system. The sentences given out by judges in the courts will influence the prison population as well as determining how long the prisoner will be in there. One of the major problems through sentencing, is the fact that the sentences are unjust or to short. In terms of duration of sentences the average custodial sentence as of 2012, is 14. 8 months (Ministry of Justice, 2012). This statistic shows that the average prisoner will only spend a relatively short period of time, which leaves the question as to whether this enough time for rehabilitation to take place. It concluded that 60% of short-sentenced prisoners commit another crime within a year of getting out’ (Cooney, 2010. ). This quote is evidence that for short-term offenders the majority will reoffend. Therefor this leads to the conclusion that prison does not work for them, thus meaning the resources spent on them would be better for long-term prisoners. The fact that the prison population is increasing through this policy means that already scarce resources for rehabilitation are becoming even scarcer.
This is having a huge impact on the prison system in being able to rehabilitate offenders, to reducing reoffending rates. ‘A recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) confirms what many people knew already – short sentences just do not work’ (ibid). This sums up the point that the sentencing policy is not working and needs to be changed, which could result with the problems in the prison system being reduced. However this doesn’t appear to be likely to be changing in the future with the new secretary of state for justice Chris Gayling. Am I planning to reduce the number of prison places? No I'm not. I do not want to set a target to reduce the prison population. ’ (Gayling, cited in Telegraph, 2012. ) This quote shows that future policy will only strengthen to increase the prison population not reduce it. In conclusion to this essay it is clear from the evidence gathered in this essay that the prison system is in state where there are huge problems within. The high prison population, overcrowding levels and lack of rehabilitation highlights this the most.
However since looking at the data gathered it is clear that these are issues that have not just affected the prison system in today’s society. This could suggest that if its always been plagued by problems that, in reality its not in crisis its just ‘business like usual’. Despite this, relating back to the definition previously mentioned it is clear that the system is in crisis because of the intense difficulties it is facing. All of this could be argued that it is down to penal policy rather than the prison system, which as mentioned is contributing significantly to the difficulties.
References Used

Berman, G. (2012) `Prison population statistics’. Library: House of Commons.
Cavadino, M. and Dignan, J. (2007) The Penal System: An Introduction 4th edition, London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Cooney, F, insidetime (April, 2010) `Short sentences are not the answer’ (Internet) Available at:;c=short_sentences_are_not_the_answer , Accessed: 28/11/12.
Jewkes, Y. and Bennet, J. (2008) Dictionary of Prisons and Punishment, Devon: Willan Publishing.
Leech, M. (2009) The Prisons Handbook 2009 11th edition, Manchester: Prisons.Org.Uk Ltd.
Ministry of Justice (2012) `Criminal justice statistics’ (Internet) Available at:, Accessed: 28/11/12.
Ministry of Justice (2012) `National Offender Management Service Annual Report 2010/2011: Management Information Ammendum.’ Available at:, Accessed: 20/11/12
Ministry of Justice (2012) `Proven re-offending’ (Internet) Available at:, Accessed: 27/11/12.
Slack, J. and Chapman, J. Mail Online (2012) ‘I’ll stop our jails being like holiday camps, says new minister of justice.’ (Internet) Available at:, Accesed:30/11/12
The Telegraph. (2012) `Prisons should be tougher for criminals, justice secretary Chris Gayling warns.’ Available at:, Accessed: 30/11/12.
Treadwell, J. (2006) Criminology, London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Woolf, H. and Tumin, S. (1991) Prison Disturbances April 1990, Cm 1456. London: HMSO.


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