Prisons: Are we asking the right questions?

Published: Monday October 9, 2023

“It is not the capacity of our prisons which is too small but rather our diminished ability to think big and long term.” ~ Bishop Rachel writes.

Following the recent escape of a prisoner from HMP Wandsworth there were immediate answers being demanded of questions about how the prison could possibly have allowed this to happen. The problem is that the questions we ask can lead to answers which don’t actually shine the light in the right places.

I was therefore glad when I gradually began to hear some people asking questions about prison numbers and overcrowding, although even then such questions can result in simplistic answers about needing to build additional prisons and create more prison places, and possibly even send prisoners to cells overseas.

It is not the capacity of our prisons which is too small but rather our diminished ability to think big and long term.

If we seriously asked questions about why our prisons are so overcrowded and why it is hard to recruit and retain prison staff we might arrive at some different and difficult answers, but we also might find ourselves building stronger, kinder and safer communities across our cities, towns and villages.

As Anglican Bishop for HM Prisons with the privilege of engaging with people across the different spheres of criminal justice, I reject the popular message that our streets and communities will be safer if we lock up more people and make sentences longer. That’s not just because as a Christian I believe in hope, redemption and transformation but also because the evidence and data don’t support the narrative.

We now have one of the largest prison populations in Western Europe, and the number of people sentenced to more than ten years in prison has more than doubled in a decade.  Yet statistics reveal that approximately half of all those leaving custody go on to reoffend within a year of their release, and the figure is even higher for those sentenced to less than twelve months.

Contrary to what people conclude from reading the stories that hit the headlines, over two thirds of people in prison are there for nonviolent offences, and many of them connected to drug addiction. I never condone crime or want to imply a simplistic narrative of cause and effect, but you don’t have to spend very long in prison or with people caught up in the criminal justice system to realise that poverty, deprivation and trauma feature highly in the story.

Undoubtedly there are people who need to be locked up for the safety of the public, and of course people who have blighted and wounded the lives of other people and their communities need to face the consequences, but that becomes increasingly uncomfortable when we recognise that is true for all of us because we are living with the consequences of failing to ask the right questions.

So much more transformation and reduction in reoffending could take place within good community alternatives to prison for so many people, and by looking upstream to all the underlying issues of offending, but that requires imagination and a commitment to invest the money differently.

Indeed, those who aren’t interested in asking compassionate questions about offenders and victims and their stories, do tend to take note of finance and tax payers money. So let’s start asking questions about the value for money of sending someone to prison at a cost in the region of £50k per annum, and to ask questions about the social and economic cost of reoffending which enters the sphere of billions of pounds per year. And this is just the tip of the financial iceberg.

Charlie Taylor, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has stated that one in ten prisons are not fit for purpose, and successive inspection reports reveal that a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration is largely absent. If we had the courage to ask the big questions about what prisons are for and the sort of society and communities we long to shape, it might take us to some different life-giving answers for victims of crime as well as perpetrators, noting that many people are both.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, justice is not synonymous with vengeance and punishment but challengingly resides alongside mercy, love and restoration, and presents some hard questions about what it means to be human.

It’s not only some cell doors which need unlocking but also our hearts and minds.

In the meantime, within the Church it’s Prisons Week and I’m joining people praying for all those whose lives are impacted by crime and the criminal justice system and all who work within it, and all who believe in change and hold fast to hope, not least prison chaplains. I’m also praying for a cascade of different questions so that the party manifestos which appear in the coming months might not trumpet a desire for toughness and more imprisonment emerging from a false narrative that it will shape a stronger and safer Britain. What might that look like? Now there’s a question.


+ Rachel





Take it further:


Bishop Rachel’s role as Bishop for Prisons
Our ongoing campaign: Fighting for Women’s Justice
More from Bishop Rachel

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One thought on “Prisons: Are we asking the right questions?

  1. Thank you Bp Rachel for your wise reflections. As someone who has worked for many years as a social worker and manager I have seen the devastating impact on families caused by imprisonment of a parent and I have worked residentially with young people on remand awaiting trial or post sentence awaiting imprisonment – many had been exploited or had experienced significant abuse as younger children , with the emotional impact often being the most damaging. Many prisoners who have committed the most serious physical or sexual assaults have a history which includes devastating emotional abuse in childhood – this is something that we , as Christians can confront by supporting and providing services to tackle harm in childhood and promoting positive childcare. We can also confront exploitation of young people who are unsupported and vulnerable to gang activity and other forms of exploitation. The best services that support mothers in prison who have young babies are provided by Christian charities, these services can help reduce the pattern of serial pregnancies that can happen when women have children removed from their care around the point of imprisonment which can create an overwhelming need for a new baby to fill the vacuum in their lives

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