Penal policy – measuring success in prisons

15 January 2016

The debate around a prison’s ability to deliver better social outcomes remains a topical issue. Justice secretaries, over the past decade have been inconsistent in their political narratives, ranging from the belief that prisons do work to one that prisons don’t.

Implicit in this debate is the idea that a prison’s success should be evaluated in terms of the outcomes it delivers, in other words, reoffending and post-release employment rates. Interestingly, this is not how the Ministry of Justice benchmarks its estate nor how Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons assesses prisons. These bodies mainly evaluate the activities and outcomes that are directly controlled by the prison, for example violent incidences and training courses available.

The complexity of penal institutions and the diversity of factors influencing reoffending or post-employment release rates make it difficult to isolate the “prison effect”. In addition, the use of reoffending, education and employment upon release as the sole measures of a prison’s long-term success is not sufficient to capture the complexity of prisoner outcomes.

If there was a greater understanding of the type of data prisons collect and hold, however, better performance evaluation metrics could be developed. On a recent visit to an adult prison, two particularly noteworthy recommendations emerged.

The first recommendation related to the category and role of the prison. As a category B prison, its primary role is not to prepare prisoners for release, but to try and reduce the risk level of its inmates and allow them to continue their sentence in a lower category prison. Staff suggested that ‘risk reduction’ could be used as a new measure alongside the more ‘obvious’ outcomes such as reoffending rates. In other words, the success of certain prison categories in delivering outcomes could be assessed in terms of reducing the risk the inmate presents to society, by counting the number of prisoners who are sent to a prison of lower category.

The second recommendation related to the type of offenders the prison housed. As a prison for sex offenders, one potential measure of performance could be based on the prisoner’s psychological development. For example, the prison collects data on a prisoner’s move from denial to acceptance of his offence. This information is routinely collected by the prison but not exploited by any evaluative body.

Failing to capture what is not easily quantifiable will always remain a major caveat of performance measures and benchmarking procedures. However, a better understanding of what data is already being collected by prisons and how this could best be used could help the Government devise better and more innovative metrics.

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