Proposed Prison Reform – An Attempt At Change Or A Political Gimmick?

I have been reading a lot of things regarding Chris Grayling’s proposed changes to the prison system. The claim is that it is meant to help prisoners and while some agree that it may help, many feel that it will be a hindrance and cause more problems than resolve.

The proposed reform will tackle many different areas. On the one hand there is a pledge to aid rehabilitation of prisoners, but on the other there is a pledge to  become more tough on prisoners creating an immediate conflict of interest. Some of the proposals include:

  • A rehabilitation revolution with a shake up in probation and a pay by results system
  • A change in prisoner perks. 
  • Removing daytime television and freeview tv
  • Engaging prisoners in more purposeful activity, such as work or education

Rehabilitation is an interesting one. The main worry for me in the ‘shake up’ is the payment by results, and there are several reasons why. The first big one is that it is ethically not a good idea. If you motivate people through money then there is a risk that prisoners will not get the services that they need. Instead some companies may create ‘sticking plaster’ solutions, essentially fixing the visible surface problems but not dealing with the bigger underlying problems that may cause offending behaviour. In doing so companies would be able to get more individuals through their programmes seemingly doing a job in ‘correcting’ the behaviour and achieving set targets thus being able to collect money for their services. However, another issue relating to this is how do you measure success? For a start there is a prominent problem that many offenders are part of more than one programme to ensure that each need is supported and helped – thus how can you decide which programme resulted in a change of behaviour? Furthermore, when you look at individual re-offending, sometime offenders go on to commit an offence different to the one they were committed for. For example prisoner A could be arrested for a knife related crime but then be rearrested for stealing a jar of coffee – is that success? A further problem is that the pay by results method has not been fully tested yet. It was first put to the full test in 2010, and since then results have been mixed on whether they work or not.

However, the idea  is not bad in its entirety. In theory it could be an effective model. It could provide more value for taxpayers who, ultimately, will at least in part fun this. The method would enable those who have effective rehabilitation programmes to gain money for the services which they could then invest and make it even better, assuming that the extra money does not disapear into a pocket.  

The change in prisoner privileges I think is one of the more riskier changes. Under the current UK prison system there are three levels of privileges: basic, standard and enhanced. When inmates enter the prison system they automatically start at standard level which enables various privileges such as access to private money and being allowed to wear their own clothes. The changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, which are supposed to come into effect sometime this month, create a new level known as ‘entry’. This is a more austere version of the basic level of privileges (which is typically reserved for punishing bad behaviour). The new level will deny entering prisoners access to the typical entitlements for entering prison. After two weeks of being in prison, the prisoners behaviour will be reviewed and if they have cooperated with the prison regime and have actively engaged in rehabilitation they will progress to the standard level, if not they will be at basic. The theory behind this is controlling behaviour. There have been a lot of stories in the media surrounding bad prisoner behaviour. While it seems a good idea in theory, in practical terms it is a dangerous game to play.

The first month of imprisonment is the time period when prisoners are most at risk of self harm and/or suicide. If you then start prisoners on a punitive and austere regime, do you not risk higher rates of harm and suicide? A further issue that makes me feel very uncomfortable is the fact that it reminds me of Haney, Banks and Zimbardo’s (1973) Stanford Prison Experiment (click here to view a video of the Stanford Prison Experiment). The main reason for this is the depersonalisation of the prisoner upon entering the prison by removing access to their belongings. This was commented upon in the debriefing of Haney, Banks and ZImbardo’s (1973) study and it aided the prisoners becoming institutionalised. Now while this would in theory help with behaviour, it also creates a barrier to rehabilitation. Institutionalisation requires an individual to relinquish their freedom and autonomy to make choices and decisions thus removing the ability to be self-sufficient. This can result in individuals becoming reliant upon the institution that institutionalised. This creates a barrier in terms of rehabilitation by making re-integration into society more difficult. Those who become profoundly institutionalised can become harmful or self-destructive when given back freedoms and choices that were previously either denied or withheld (Travis and Waul, 2003).

Removing television is a difficult one. I am aware that there is a general public dissatisfaction around prisoners having access to television. However, when these prisoners are confined to their cell for the majority of their day they need something to do. At this many people cry out ‘but there are books! Why don’t they read?’. Well the main reason is that reading levels are so low among prisoners. 48% of prisoners have literacy skills at or below level 1, the expected reading level of an 11 year old (Home Office, 2004). If reading is at the age of an eleven year old, you are limited in terms of reading material. Furthermore, television is a way of staying in contact with the wider world. This is important particularly for reintegration into society, which is a major part of rehabilitation success.

Now I agree that engaging prisoners in work or education is a good idea. However, I think that education is more important in terms of engagement. 52% of male offenders and 71% of female offenders have no qualifications. This poses a problem in terms of getting a job, particularly when you consider that 49% of the UK go into university education (BBC, 2013).  


I think it is safe to say that prison has long been a political tool. It is a way for politicians to quickly gain favour by professing to reduce crime through either increasing the rehabilitative success of prison or through making prison conditions more punitive and harsh. I think that this is very much what has happened here. It seems that the Conservatives have used an easy target to gain more votes. However through doing so they have created a dilemma. Initially the claim was to improve rehabilitation in prison, but then later Chris Grayling claimed that the Conservatives planned to get rid of ‘cushy’ and ‘soft’ prisons. It seems to me, from these comments alone, that too much notice has been paid to the Daily Mail and the Sun newspapers. Routinely these papers project a (false) view that prison is an easy ride and is soft and pleasant. We must remember that these papers are out to make a profit and so will print stories that will encourage the reader to buy the paper in question. I am of the firm opinion that prison is not as soft as the media leads us to believe. Sykes (1958) argued that there are intrinsic pains of imprisonment built into the prison culture. These are: deprivation of liberty, deprivation of goods and services, deprivation of heterosexual relationships, deprivation of autonomy, and deprivation of personal security – all pains which I feel are very much present today. I think that the proposals are more of a political piece than an attempt to help prisoners ‘break the cycle’ of crime. The proposals feel rushed and unfounded in terms of evidence. I think that the time following the implementation of these proposals, more problems will arise than solutions.



BBC News (2013) ‘University entry levels reach 49%’ [online] <> [accessed 18 November 2013]

Haney, C., Banks, W.C., and Zimbardo, P. G. (1973) ‘A Study of Prisoners and Guards In A Simulated Prison’ Naval Research Review 30, 4-17.

Home Office (2004) Reducing Re-offending: National Action Plan. London: Home Office.

Sykes, G. (1958) The Society of Captives Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Travis, J. and Waul, M (2003) Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities. Washington: The Urban Institute.


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