Time Better Spent: Improving Decision-making in Prisons

Ease prison crisis with Norwegian-style queueing system, finds JUSTICE report

  • New report on prison decision making outlines series of measures to improve conditions and ease overcrowding.   
  • Report calls for risk-assessed queuing system for prison places as well as other reforms such as extending legal aid to prison work.   

A Norwegian-style queueing system and other key reforms could ease the UK’s prison overcrowding crisis and reduce reoffending, a new report by JUSTICE finds. The report warns that such reforms are urgently needed to avoid a repeat of the widespread prison riots of the 1990s. 

The UK has the highest prison population in western Europe, and it continues to grow. The Ministry of Justice forecasts the prison population to exceed 100,000 people by early 2026. Nearly 30% of people in prison are there for non-violent or non-sexual offences and nearly 20% are there to await trial or sentencing.

Prisons are widely acknowledged to be in crisis, with two thirds of prisons in England and Wales holding more people than they were designed to house in recent months. Official reporting finds instances of raw sewage flowing through cells, chronic and severe staff shortages, prisoners locked in cells for 23 hours a day, and multiple people sharing cells meant for one. Very high rates of self-harm and violence have become common.

Stephanie Needleman, Legal Director of JUSTICE, says:

“Almost everyone in prison will eventually leave; it is in all our interests that they leave prison able to forge a better path.

“Instead, the system shows many of the signs that led to the 1990s prison riots; scarcely a day goes by without another inspection report describing conditions of squalor, idleness, and despair. By releasing people with worse mental health, no new skills and little support, it is unsurprising that more than one in three reoffend within a year.”

“Better prison decision making would save money, cut crime, and add some much-needed hope back into the lives of people in prison.”

The failure of our prisons carries large social and economic costs. Annual running costs for the prison system are around £4 billion a year, not accounting for the personal, social, and financial costs of reoffending.

Norwegian-style queueing system and other reforms urgently needed:

Other European nations experiences’ show progress on prison conditions and reoffending is within our reach. In Norway, policy changes dropped a 70% reoffending rate in the 1990s to its current level of 20%. And the Netherlands was able to shrink its prison population by 40% between 2005 and 2022.   

In Norway, people sentenced to prison are placed in a queue to await an available prison space. Today’s report recommends adopting and tailoring this approach to the UK’s needs by:

  • Pausing all new admissions to prisons officially flagged as having urgent and significant performance concerns until these have been properly addressed. 
  • Placing suitably risk-assessed people under electronically monitored ‘home detention curfew’ while they wait for a prison place (home detention curfew releases people from custody with certain rules, e.g. about where they go and when they return home). 
  • Ensuring immediate prison spaces for those who pose the greatest safety risks.
  • Deducting this time spent in home detention from people’s sentences.
  • Developing rehabilitation approaches that work in home detention.
  • Not putting more people in a prison if doing so would jeopardise safety and decency and prevent the delivery of appropriate rehabilitative activities. 

The report also recommends granting people in prisons means-tested legal aid. This relatively inexpensive change, the report argues, would add essential checks to a system that otherwise controls almost every aspect of prisoners’ lives – allowing people to appeal life-changing decisions about their risk categorisation, for example.

It also advocates for the need to find alternative ways to handle mental health crises rather than relying on segregation units and makes several other recommendations to improve the fairness and transparency of decision making in prisons, including improvements to the complaints system.   

Professor Nick Hardwick, formerly His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons and chair of the JUSTICE working party advising on today’s report, says:

“Fundamental to creating decent, safe and well-ordered prisons is ensuring prisoners are treated fairly and consistently, and have effective means to have legitimate concerns addressed and their voice heard in the most important decisions affecting them.

“This report sets out a series of practical measures to achieve that – while recognising that some prisons are currently far from having the capacity to deliver even the most basic standards of safety, decency and justice.

“We therefore call for legal controls on the population of individual prisons when the most basic standards are not being met, and for the prison system as a whole when capacity is reached.” 

Notes to editors:

  • For queries or interview requests please contact Jessica Kaplan on press@justice.org.uk
  • Today’s report, Time Better Spent: Improving Decision-making in Prisons, is available here.  
  • JUSTICE is a law reform charity working to build a fairer UK justice system within everyone’s reach. Over our 67-year history we have transformed the legal landscape for the better, led by evidence, expertise, and a focus on practical solutions. For example, key legal bodies we now take for granted such as the Ombudsman, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board were all proposed and supported into being by JUSTICE.
  • The report was written by Ailsa McKeon (Criminal Justice Lawyer, JUSTICE) on the advice of a working party chaired by Professor Nick Hardwick (Royal Holloway University of London, former Chair of the Parole Board, and formerly His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons) and comprised of Andrea Albutt (Prison Governors’ Association), Hamish Arnott (Bhatt Murphy Solicitors), Dr Hindpal Singh Bhui (University of Oxford and HM Inspectorate of Prisons), Dr Ellie Brown (Get Further), Marc Conway (Fair Justice), Dr Matt Cracknell (Brunel University), Rikki Garg (GT Stewart, Chair of the Prisoners’ Advice Service and founding member Association of Prison Lawyers), Erica Handling (NED for Legal Quality, executive coach, and Chair of Spark Inside), Ryan Harman (Advice and Information Service Manager, Prison Reform Trust), Sarah-Jane Hounsell (Intervene Project), Dr Ailbhe O’Loughlin (University of York), Claire Salama (Managing Solicitor, Howard League for Penal Reform), Khatuna Tsintsadze (Zahid Mubarek Trust).
  • The Chief Inspector of Prisons recently reported raw sewage flowing through cells at HMP Bedford. All other examples mentioned are discussed in the JUSTICE report.
  • The central projection in the Ministry of Justice’s Prison Population Projections 2023 to 2028, England and Wales (p.5-6) sees the prison population exceeding 100,000 by early 2026. 
  • The Guardian reported that two-thirds of prisons were officially overcrowded in England and Wales in October 2023.