Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a barrister, surgeon, and former British Army Officer.
As of November last year, the UK’s prison population stood at 78,838. A study by the Ministry of Justice predicted that, by September 2026, that figure would rise to 98,700; an increase of around 25 per cent. Add in those on probation, which in September 2020 accounted for some 222,657 people, and that is approximately 0.6 per cent of the UK’s total current adult population.
It would be an entirely nonsensical position to argue that prisons are not necessary; patently , they are. Sadly, people do some terrible things, and it is right that they are appropriately punished. However, for too long we have become bogged down in the mantra of “you do the crime, you do the time”. There is a cogent argument that one size does not fit all. It is an issue that, as conservatives, we must engage in.
Some years ago, I listened to a panel discussion that took place at a Conservatives Political Action Conference in the United States. One might have anticipated this would be a rallying call of the conservative right; quite the contrary.
It was engaging, informative, and surprisingly liberal-minded. A phrase that stuck with me from the talk was from Pat Nolan, at the time Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform. When describing for whom prison should be, he noted that prisons have expanded to include “offenses that are not morally reprehensible. Some of these offenses are bad simply because the legislature says they are. Prison is for people that we are afraid of, not the ones we are mad at”.
Arguably, Nolan’s standpoint was shaped by his own personal experiences. He had been the Republican Leader in the California State Assembly prior to a conviction for corruption, as part of an FBI sting. Convicted and incarcerated, his prison experience led to a desire to reform the American criminal justice system. One can draw analogies with Jonathan Aitken, in the UK, whose own fall from grace led to a journey of reflection and personal reconstruction.
My interactions with the criminal justice system have been, thankfully, limited. I practise in the field of civil law, not criminal. My hospital work brought me in contact with the aftermaths of violent crimes in terms of trauma, but not the inner workings of the prison system.
And whilst my soldiers gave me the odd grey hair with some of their antics, by and large they steered away from criminality. Notwithstanding that, the need for criminal justice reform has been a policy area that has always interested me. I have never been a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” type of Tory.
The purpose of the Criminal Justice System must be aimed towards rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Clearly, that will not always be possible. I accept some individuals will never be reformed however much the system tries to help but that should not stop us trying where we can.
The current model is failing. There are high rates of recidivism. Within nine years, 75 per cent of prisoners reoffend; of those, 39.3 per cent do so within the first twelve months. It would be hard to argue in the face of those statistics that prisons keep us safe.
An interesting mental exercise is to challenge oneself to identify an institution that expands through failure. I can only come up with one; prisons. Moreover, the greater their failure, the greater their expansion and with it a burgeoning cost to the taxpayer.
Conservatism has, at its heart, a desire to preserve the integrity of society. Criminality undermines that social fabric and the current system is not achieving what it is aimed to do; make us safer. In order to tackle the problem and bring down the rates of reoffending, a three-stranded approach is needed.
First, mentorship programmes. These need to be bespoke, and focused on the individual needs and challenges of prisoners. It takes time to find a good match and even longer to recruit a large enough body of volunteers. Mentor and mentee should be paired six months or more before release, thereby enabling them to develop a relationship and smooth the transition into post-prison life. There is good evidence that such systems are effective; former Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas introduced such a scheme, and first year rates of recidivism dropped from 21 per cent to nine per cent.
Second, address the mental heath crisis in our prisons. A significant proportion of the prison population suffers from mental heath disorders. If you include drug and alcohol abuse within those numbers they go up further. The true scale of the problem is unknown, but there have been rates of up to 28 per cent for self-harm amongst the female prison population, and an estimate of two per cent having acute and serious mental health problems.
There are issues surrounding access to medical appointments. “Did not attend” rates are high amongst prisoner; some estimates put them in the region of 15 per cent. Training staff to be aware of mental issues is also an area where improvements could be made. A more pragmatic approach would be to address the root cause. If you lock someone up who has problems associated with mental health or substance abuse and hope for the best, he or she is not going to be better when released. It merely compounds the issue. Setting up mental health wings or halfway facilities that deal with these issues would be a proactive step that would prepare prisoners to cope better upon their return to society.
The third strand, which is arguably the most important, is the improvement of educational attainment. Those leaving school with qualifications have a greatly reduced tendency towards criminal behaviour. Low rates of literacy are linked with custodial sentences. Those struggling and left behind by the educational attainment gap can readily fall into what feels like an inescapable spiral.
t would be easier to argue that this is another layer to add to teachers’ overflowing in-trays, but that would not be fair. Clearly, one would hope that personal and parental responsibility would come into play, but that cannot always be relied upon. And so we come back to the theme of mentors.
But rather than mentoring those already in the system, it is about mentoring at an earlier stage to avoid at risk individuals becoming ensnared by it. In the West Midlands Combined Authority Area, Andy Street has set up the Mayor’s Mentors Scheme. This has been a huge success. However, it could be expanded, and is a prime example of how Metro Mayors, Local Government, Police and Crime Commissioners can work collaboratively to improve the life chances of the younger generations.
None of this comes easy. There will always be those who take a more punitive approach to the penal system. However, a golden thread that runs through conservatism is the desire to unlock potential and provide individuals with the skills and opportunities to succeed. There can be no better embodiment of that desire than not merely rehabilitating those who have offended, but preventing the need of such rehabilitation in the first place.