A beginner’s guide to UK prisons – everything you need to know

If you are new to how the prison system works, here are 10 key voices from different sides of the debate to keep you up-to-date with all the news.

10 things to help you understand the prison system

10 things to help you understand the prison system


From ministers to charities to think tanks to newspapers, there are many places to find information on British prisons. You can find everyone mentioned in this article in this Twitter list (except for those non-micro-bloggers of course).


1. Making prison policy

The Secretary of State for Justice oversees the whole criminal justice and prison system. The incumbent Chris Grayling, MP for Epsom and Ewell, was appointed in September 2012.

Here is our previous post about Mr Grayling’s prison policies in 2014 and here he is in the House of Commons talking about prison call monitoring:

Working under the justice secretary is the minister for prisons, probation and rehabilitation. Andrew Selous, MP for South West Bedfordshire, was appointed to this role in July 2014.

Sadiq Khan, MP for Tooting, was made Labour’s shadow justice secretary by Ed Miliband in 2010. 


2. Inspecting prison policy in practice

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent body that monitors and reports on all forms of incarceration, which include:

– prisons
– young offender institutions
– secure training centres
– immigration detention facilities
– police and court custody suites
– customs custody facilities and
– military detention.

Nick Hardwick CBE has held the position of HM chief inspector of prisons since July 2010. The chief inspector is appointed from outside of the prison service by the justice secretary. But in December Mr Hardwick turned down an invitation from the justice secretary to re-apply for his own job, claiming independence was compromised. He tweeted:


3. Holding policy-makers to account

As well as the inspectorate, and the team here at Prison Watch UK (PWUK), there are other bodies out there keeping an eye on the prison system. The blog Jack of Kent is a useful resource for understanding the British legal system, offering a mixture of news and commentary.

It’s good at breaking down current issues into an easily digestible form. For example, remember the Tory proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act, but don’t fully understand the debate? Try this post.

David Allen Green, the author behind the blog, is a trained lawyer, former legal correspondent of New Statesman and current legal commentator at FT.com.


4. Setting the agenda for prison reform

The Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League for Penal Reform are two of the leading voices calling for change in the British penal system.

The Howard League offers a legal service, lobbies parliament, runs campaigns and conducts research. Its chief executive, Frances Crook, frequently comments on prisons and is often the first to hear about stories, so is a ‘must to follow too.

The Prison Reform Trust works to make the penal system in the UK more humane and just. It believes that:

“Prison should be reserved for those whose offending is so serious that they cannot serve their sentence in the community. The only justification for the sentence of imprisonment is the measured punishment of an individual for an offence; it is not right to use prison as a gateway to services or treatment, or to attempt to use prison in place of effective crime prevention.”


5. Running prisons day-to-day

Prison officers face unique challenges and their experiences make the newspapers less frequently than those of the prisoners themselves. But the officers are responsible for far more than locking doors and patrolling corridors: they are crucial to the well-being and rehabilitation process of prisoners.

The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) is the largest union in the UK representing prison staff.


6. Publishing news for prisoners

Inside Time, newspaper for prisoners

Inside Time, newspaper for prisoners

Inside Time is the leading publication for inmates in Britain. Like any newspaper it prints news and letters, but it also offers support and advice. The paper shows how prisoners view the world rather than how the world views prisons.

Jail Mail is a newspaper run by human rights and prison law experts delivered monthly to prisoners in England, Wales & Scotland.


7. Advising those facing incarceration

Prison UK is a blog offering advice to those who might be facing prison or just need some guidance. Alex Cavendish, the author and a former inmate, tells you all you need to know about life behind bars.


8. Researching how prisons are run

The International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS) conducts research into the principles and running of prisons to bring about improvements in prison policies and practice, within a human rights framework.

It carries out work on a project or consultancy basis for international agencies, governmental and non-governmental organisations. As an international organisation it is a useful resource for broader issues affecting prisons, rather than those specific to the UK.


9. Advocating and advising on prison policy

Iain Duncan Smith MP

Iain Duncan Smith set up the Centre for Social Justice in 2004 – Credit UK in Spain

The Centre for Social Justice works to combat social injustice and poverty in Britain. As a part of this broad agenda, the centre recommends improvements to the penal system. It was set up in 2004 by Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative MP and incumbent secretary of state for work and pensions.

Reform‘s raison d’être is to scrutinise the value for money gained from public spending, including that spent on the prison system. The group has an MP from each of the main parties on its advisory board.


10. Rehabilitating in prison and beyond

Rehabilitation can take the form of literacy and numeracy, art and music computer skills or sport.
The Prisoners Education Trust specialises in distance learning and the Koestler Trust promotes art in prisons and prisoners’ art in the public. The Crossroads Trust focuses on rehabilitation after prison by offering peer mentoring, information and advice.

Click here for all the names mentioned above in one easy-to-follow Twitter list list.

Now you’ve taken our crash course on prisons, step it up a notch and find out about the tought challenges in the present system 10 of the biggest problems facing Britain’s prisons today

More Twitter lists on prisons.


TWITTER: @prisonwatchuk
FACEBOOK: facebook.com/PrisonWatchUK

2 Comments on “A beginner’s guide to UK prisons – everything you need to know”

  1. Fran Saban says:

    Please amend this article to point out that this is England only. The Twitter feed and other links claim it is a guide to Prisons in the UK.


    • Sean Regan says:

      You are right, most of our posts so far have only concerned England & Wales. As you know, Scotland and Northern Ireland run their own prison systems and have separate reports and data. But the good news is that we are working on posts concerning Scotland. Please keep an eye out for those soon. Thanks for reading (despite our focus on England so far).


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