Measuring what matters in prisons

28 April 2016

Early this year, the Prime Minister’s speech on prisons, set the tone for a new reform agenda. The Government will seek to increase value for money in prisons through the delivery of “better outcomes, improved public safety and lower costs for taxpayers”. The challenge at hand is great: as the Prime Minister said, currently “we have no idea” of what a best performing prison looks like.

Today, Reform publishes its new report, Unlocking prison performance, which paves the way to answering this question. It provides a framework to understand what best practice looks like within and outside of a prison’s walls. It argues that for prisons to be held accountable for the outcomes they deliver, such as reoffending rates, employment and accommodation on release, there is an urgent need for better and more diverse data.

Currently, official performance measures fall short. They fail to focus on the long-term outcomes that really matter. The cost of reoffending to the economy is huge, the NAO estimates it at up to £13 billion a year. In addition, both victims and offenders disproportionately come from disadvantaged communities. Preventing victimisation and further incarceration therefore helps to improve the wellbeing of the least fortunate.

Improving the quality of existing data and developing a wider variety of measures for capturing prison performance is the major challenge facing the Ministry of Justice. There is no way, for example, of understanding from the current data the type of accommodation an offender has secured after his release, or whether it lasts more than the first night. The data collected on employment outcomes is also of limited use, based on offenders self-reporting at the point of release, it fails to capture the nature or sustainability of any employment. Given the importance of these outcomes in the resettlement process, the Ministry must quickly improve these metrics.

Issues of data quality do not only affect what happens to offenders after they are released from prison, but also what is known about their experience inside. At a prison level, there is currently no publically available data on the number of hours offenders spend on educational courses or on the numbers engaged in industry or training. This hinders government’s understanding of whether a prison is doing the right things to deliver better outcomes, and how they are performing against other comparable prisons.

Without knowing which prisons are safely housing their offenders and delivering good long-term outcomes, the Ministry of Justice will not be able to deliver greater value for money.

Experimenting with existing data, Reform has created six performance indicators capturing what happens inside and outside a prison’s walls. The analysis finds wide variations in performance amongst the sample of 40 adult, male category B and C prisons. It is by interrogating this type of analysis that best performing prisons can be identified and lessons shared. It also enables the Government to identify poor performing prisons and take action.

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Closing the gap between the best and worst performing prisons presents considerable opportunity not just to release savings, but to deliver better outcomes. Better outcomes mean lives improved and safer communities. This is the value the prison service should be delivering, and for which they should be held accountable.

Eleonora Harwich, Researcher, Reform



Rhys Toogood

29 April, 2016

Probably the best place to start, is cost benefit analysis in the pre-sentence report of each sentencing option. Benefit to the victim, benefit to the community, cost to the community, and the cost to the offender of each sentence option