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Tagged In:  HM Prison Service, HMP, Prison

Prisons across the UK are full.

Latest figures from the Ministry of Justice for October 2017 list 86,327 people serving sentences in prisons in this country, with an operational capacity of 87,532.

While the UK prison population has been relatively stable since 2010, that followed a 31% rise between 2000 and 2010, and some jails are “over-full” with Wandsworth and Leeds operating at 168% capacity, for example.

According to Council of Europe data, only Russia (671,000) and Turkey (152,000) have more prisoners (in Europe) than the UK. In terms of custodial sentences, England and Wales has 148 people per 100,000 in prison; Australia has 151; Germany 78; France 95; and the US has 698.

The Swedish solution

Yet elsewhere across Europe, there are examples where the prison population has dropped dramatically, such as in Sweden which has closed four prisons.

So why is this?

With no fall in crime rates, between 2011 and 2012 there was a 6% drop in Sweden’s prisoner population which is now about 4,500. Prison authorities are still unclear as to precisely why this is happening but suggest it could be due to the way prisons are run with investment in rehabilitation and preventing reoffending.

In the UK, the government has been urged to strengthen family ties to prisoners as it strives to reform the system and cut reoffending rates with the landmark review by Lord Michael Farmer pointing to the importance of family connections as being a critical part of the process in helping offenders turn their lives around.

According to the UK Ministry of Justice, the highest rate of reoffending within a year of release among adults is recorded by those serving 12 months or less. The overall reoffending rate in Sweden stands at between 30 and 40% over three years – around half that in the UK.

One strong reason for the drop in prison numbers might be the amount of post-prison support available in Sweden with probation services delivering supervision, and treatment programmes for offenders with drug/alcohol or violence issues. That is backed up by around 4,500 lay supervisors who volunteer to befriend and support offenders under supervision.

Closing jails in the Netherlands

The large drop in prisoner numbers in the Netherlands has resulted in empty cells and around 20 jails closed.

Observers suggest the trend is down to a progressive approach to law enforcement, favouring rehabilitation to incarceration, as well as an older population which is less likely to commit crime.

“The Dutch have a deeply ingrained pragmatism when it comes to regulating law and order,” said René van Swaaningen, professor of criminology at Erasmus School of Law in Rotterdam. 

The cost of holding someone in prison in the UK, for example, is estimated by the Ministry of Justice to be £32,500 a year, making the total cost to the public of £2.7bn last year for 86,000 prisoners.

Renting out cell space

With recorded crime having fallen by a quarter in the last decade and empty cells in the Netherlands, some of that surplus cell space has been rented out to Belgium, which has a prison over-crowding issues, and Norway.

Norway agreed to pay the Netherlands about 25 million euros a year for a three-year lease of Norgerhaven Prison, a high-security facility, where it sent 242 prisoners. Earlier, Belgium had sent about 500 prisoners there.

However, there is a down side too – it is feared that about 2,500 prison guards may find themselves redundant.

What do you think we can learn from our European counterparts? Should we be incorporating some of these ideas into the UK? Let us know what you think using the comments box below. 

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