Prisoners, Rehabilitation and Privileges

Prisoners, Rehabilitation and Privileges

The Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, has announced ‘radical’ changes which he believes will make an impact on the rehabilitation of offenders.

The proposed changes are:

The Government appears to be provoking public outrage at the ‘luxurious’ life that inmates serve in prison rather than addressing the root problems…

  • Inmates should wear a uniform during the first two weeks in jail and access to private cash to call home should be restricted.
  • Satellite and cable TV channels, currently available in some prisons, will be banned.
  • A longer working day for prisoners.
  • A ban on films with an 18 certificate.

Prisoners will also be put on either a basic or standard Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) level depending on how they ‘co-operate with the regime or engage in rehabilitation’. IEPs were introduced in 1995, following a recommendation by Lord Justice Woolf in his 1991 Report into the Strangeways prison protest. He argued that there should be ‘incentives’ and ‘disincentives’ towards good and bad behaviour.

Some of the proposed changes already exist in some form and can be found on the Ministry of Justice’s website. The rules on the IEP regime and private cash are governed by Prison Service Orders 4000 and 4465 and Prison Service Instruction 30/2008. This guidance states that the aims of the IEP are to:

  • encourage responsible behaviour by prisoners
  • encourage effort and achievement in work and other constructive activities by prisoners
  • encourage sentenced prisoners to engage in the Offender Assessment System (OASys) and sentence planning
  • benefit from activities designed to reduce reoffending, and
  • create a more disciplined, better controlled and safer environment for prisoners and staff.

Prison privileges include things like television in cells, increased visits, better paid jobs and access to private cash.

It is naïve to think that a tougher approach to treatment in prison will address the issue of offending.


The Government appears to be provoking public outrage at the ‘luxurious’ life that inmates have in prison rather than addressing the root problems, which are causing prisons to fail to rehabilitate offenders. The Economist highlights that the IEP system has little to do with rehabilitation, but more to do with keeping inmates occupied in custody:

Prisoners waste hours watching television in their cells because there is little else to do…[a]nd watching TV keeps prisoners quiet, notes one ex-con, which means prisons can operate with fewer staff.

It is predicted that the proposed changes to the prison system will cause a steady reduction in offending. However, there is no regard for the unsettled lifestyle of the average offender or the impact that outside sources have on them, such as the inability to find gainful employment or accommodation. It is naïve to believe that a tougher approach to the treatment of offenders in prison would address the issue of offending, particularly when there is limited alternative activity for inmates to undertake.

People will continue to offend without ever having received rehabilitation. Those inmates serving shorter sentences don’t have access to courses during the short period that they spend in jail. Children may still witness and suffer abuse and go on to offend. Social statistics currently document an increase in poverty and it could be argued that this has an impact on someone’s likelihood of offending. If this class divide continues, offending could continue to increase – for example, in situations where drugs are taken as a means to escape reality and robberies and burglaries occur for financial gain.

It is predicted that the proposed changes to the prison system will cause a steady reduction in offending.

A lot of offences which result in indeterminate sentences (where offenders are imprisoned for life or for public protection) are committed uniquely and there are a number of commonplace determinate sentences (such as not paying tax, committing an insurance fraud or white collar crimes) which are unpredictable, that is, committed with no prior or similar offending. To target these inmates, with no experience of the prison regime, at the early stages of entry into custody with uniform and communication restrictions would mark them out as targets for bullying when they are undoubtedly at their most vulnerable and will need telephone calls to seek reassurance and support. Chris Huhne was reported to have been harassed and ridiculed on his first day in prison.

Custody will continue to act as a means of punishment and prisoners will still require assistance and advice in enforcing their human rights. The Government is unable to deviate from judgments pertaining to the rights of prisoners handed down from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, although access to justice will be affected by the cuts to legal aid. Rehabilitation will not be addressed by the removal of satellite television channels (only available in private prisons) which currently assist a strained prison service by keeping inmates occupied. There is also no evidence that 18 rated films or programmes encourage offending behaviour.

Solutions to offending

Solutions to reducing crime and promoting public safety lie outside the prison gates and beyond the criminal justice agencies. These solutions are to be found in improved mental health services, drug treatment and alcohol services. Social development initiatives which address exclusion and disadvantage by providing effective support for communities would, in the long run, be more effective than relying on punishment to stop crime. This, again, is dependent on the amount of capital invested in social development schemes. We should not forget that it was a Conservative government that made cuts in the number of psychiatric and psychological services available to the public. The proposed cuts within the NHS will undoubtedly affect the number of psychiatrists available to assist those with mental illnesses. How will those with mental illness fare with restricted access to contact with family members and being marked out by a uniform?

Solutions to reducing crime and promoting public safety lie outside the prison gates and beyond the criminal justice agencies.

It can be accepted that the primary purpose of prison is punishment and deterrence, but as the UK moved away from capital punishment, a more humanitarian practice towards offenders has developed. We now have a system where psychologists, psychiatrists and probation staff all work on assessing a person’s background and the triggers for their offending with a view to completing in-depth work, in order to address the route causes of the offending. Plans for probation licences and considerations for release are all dependent on psychology-led assessments, not general behaviour in custody. How else can we be assured that a person is not a threat to the public?

Currently, only those serving lengthy or indeterminate sentences have the time to access the in-depth rehabilitative work supplied in prison. An overstretched prison service already struggles to place offenders on rehabilitative courses and it can take months to transfer an inmate in order to access the proper care they need. With issues like these taking the matter of rehabilitation out of the control of an inmate, how can the government then seek to punish them by introducing these reforms?


Ultimately, there is a greater need for proportionality in sentencing and a move away from the notion that the condition of life in prison can be used as a crime reduction tool. In an interview with the BBC, Prison Reform Trust director Juliet Lyon said it was, in her opinion, ‘perfectly reasonable’ to remove subscription TV channels, but there was a lack of evidence to suggest that a ‘tough approach’ would improve rehabilitation:

[T]o be more effective, you have to focus on employment and skills training, on making sure people have safe housing to go to and that they have good contact with their family.

Of course prisons should seek to assist and support offenders in addressing the causes of offending, but they are ultimately places of punishment and it is not their role to reduce crime. Prison staff are not trained to run as a social service, but work to control good order and discipline in custody. If the desire is to turn prison into an effective crime reduction tool, it requires fairer sentencing and substantive funding to support rehabilitative courses to address the problems that cause offending.

Naomi de Silva is a prison law solicitor at Cartwright King and supervisor of the Prison Law Department. She is also involved in supervising trainees as well as an LAA supervisor. She is also Chair of the Nottinghamshire Junior Lawyers Division, representing young lawyers in Nottingham.

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