Profile picture of Tyrone Steele


In a guest blog for the Bar Council, Tyrone Steele Deputy Legal Director at JUSTICE outlines the benefits of reforming the prison system.

For decades, the UK’s approach to prisons policy has been ‘out of sight, out of mind’ - a problem not seen by most due to many prisons’ remote locations and high walls, yet now increasing heard about due to the burgeoning size of the estate’s population (estimated to reach 100,000 by early 2026).

This is part of a wider failure of the criminal justice system cracking under the pressure of chronic underinvestment court backlogs, overcrowded prison cells, a reduction – and in some cases, elimination – of offender behaviour programmes, a parole system in need of reform, and a probation service still reeling from its failed privatisation and subsequent return to public control.

The breadth and depth of these issues has enabled one of the biggest failures in UK public policy to calcify. Prison system running costs are around £4 billion per year. And for what? Proponents might argue our current prison system keeps communities safer,  yet reoffending rates tell another story. Prison often has what academics call a ‘criminogenic’ effect on those incarcerated. In lay terms sending people to prison is, in many cases, a very expensive way to increase crime.

Appalling prison conditions compound prisoners’ feelings of hopelessness and despondency, with high rates of self-harm and violence the rule rather than the exception. As a society, we should expect decisions affecting individuals' lives to be lawful, fair, and correct, particularly in institutions where individuals are dependent on the state for their basic rights; this is not happening in our prisons.

Recognising the gravity of the situation, JUSTICE established a Working Party of experts, chaired by former Parole Board Chair and former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Professor Nick Hardwick, to scrutinise the decision-making processes within prisons in England and Wales. We focused on categorisation and risk assessment, incentives and discipline, segregation, and avenues for redress. The findings highlight critical deficiencies and call for urgent reforms to uphold minimum standards and ensure fairness for all within the prison system.


The report highlights the strain caused by overcrowding and the limited avenues for challenging poor prison conditions. To address this, the Working Party recommends greater transparency, accountability, and access to legal aid funding for those in prison. We also call for the clear restatement of prisoners' basic entitlements as enforceable rights and halting new admissions to prisons where adequate conditions cannot be secured.

Drawing on the experience of other jurisdictions, the report recommends a Norway style queuing system should be used when the estate is a capacity, with people awaiting an available prison space placed under electronically-monitored home detention. The time spent in home detention should then be deducted from the custodial period of the prison sentence, akin to a qualifying curfew imposed as a condition of bail. At the same time, a prioritisation system would need to be developed to ensure that those posing the greatest risk to the public, or to those with whom they reside, would enter custody immediately. This would provide certainty to those awaiting incarceration whilst relieving pressure on the overcrowded prisons estate.

Categorisation and Risk

Decisions on categorisation and risk profoundly impact prisoners' lives and opportunities for rehabilitation. We found a lack of understanding among both prisoners and staff regarding risk assessment processes. To improve decision-making quality and prisoners' understanding, guidance on sentence plans should be developed to enhance clarity as to the level of risk identified and how the risk can be addressed.

Incentives and Discipline

Despite reforms aimed at fairness and consistency, recent surveys indicate persistent issues with the incentives and discipline regime. The report calls for immediate reversal of downgrading of incentives pending adjudication outcomes and for changes to ensure fair adjudication processes, addressing concerns such as limited access to legal support and procedural failures.


The detrimental effects of segregation on mental health and social isolation are clear. While recognising the need to immediately prioritise mental health provision, the report stresses that segregation should only be used as a last resort. Improved transparency in decision-making  and wider availability of legal assistance are needed to ensure fair treatment.


Enhanced complaints mechanisms, both internal and external, are essential. Boosting the simplicity, independence and effectiveness of these mechanisms would make them more accessible to all prisoners, including those with limited literacy or language abilities. To do this we suggest using digital platforms and increasing the visibility of oversight bodies, among other things.

The right policies can reverse the harmful trends in our prison system. Other European nations have improved prison conditions and reduced reoffending. In Norway, for example, a 70% reoffending rate in the 1990s now stands at 20%. Likewise, the Netherlands was able to shrink its prison population by 40% between 2005 and 2022.  

We hope this report serves as a catalyst for addressing the systemic deficiencies within our prisons. It is our collective responsibility to ensure every individual, regardless of their circumstances, is treated with dignity and fairness within the criminal justice system.

Tyrone Steele is the Deputy Legal Director at JUSTICE, the cross-party law reform and human rights charity. You can join as a member online.

Read the JUSTICE report:

Time Better Spent: Improving Administrative Decision-making in Prisons