Why do so many ex-servicemen end up in prison?

Ex-servicemen are the largest occupational group in British jails – yet neither the government, charities nor prison staff know much about them

... Image: David

There are over 2,000 charities in existence whose aim it is to assit former service personnel and yet the Government claims that far too many are going unidentified by the criminal justice system. Image: David

Precise statistics on how many former servicemen and women are serving time in England and Wales are almost impossible to come by.

The proportion of ex-servicemen who offend is small in proportion to the total of those discharged from service. Even so, they still form the largest occupational group in prison in England and Wales.

Following last week’s announcement that charity Care After Combat has had 100 per cent success in stopping former servicemen re-offending, PWUK has collected all recent data and spoken to an expert to find out more about the men and women who find themselves making the harsh transition from the front line to behind bars.

Interview with SSAFA’s Liz Price

Liz Price, Director of Client Services at SSAFA

Liz Price, Director of Client Services at SSAFA

Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families (SSAFA) is the longest serving national tri-service military charity. For 130 years, it has provided lifelong support to those who are serving or have ever served in the UK’s Armed Forces. Liz Price is the charity’s director of client services.

Why are there no precise figures for the number of ex-servicemen in prison?

“The question simply wasn’t being asked when prisoners were signed in and registered as they arrived,” says Price.

However, in January 2015 it became a requirement for all prisons when they record data on inmates to ask whether they have served in the Armed Forces.

“The question may now be being asked but it is also a question about timing and how much someone is willing to reveal. Put yourself in their shoes, you’ve just arrived in a prison, you have no idea who these people are around you or whether it is safe for you to reveal that you have served in the Armed Forces.”

Has concern for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) overshadowed other reasons ex-Servicemen might offend?

Price says that although PTSD affects a large proportion of service-leavers, a bigger issue of poor mental health needs to be addressed. She says: “Mental health is extremely poor in prisons and to what extent [an ex-service personnel’s] mental health issue is PTSD, or a personality disorder, or alcohol or drugs dependency is a whole other question.”

Why does there seem to be a gap between military personnel leaving the Armed Forces and offending?

“PTSD issues aren’t often revealed while in the serving context because while still in service the individual is being supported by their ‘band of brothers/sisters’ who understand.

“It is only when the individual finds themselves completely alone that they find those issues start to seep out. And that is often how the delay is explained.”

Why are early leavers more likely to offend?

A typical transition from military life to ‘civvy street’ will be scheduled to begin up to two years before an individual’s discharge date, Price explains. “They will be given a resettlement package that will include things like advice about employment, writing CVs, etc.

“But early leavers may be more vulnerable because they’ve signed up to serve Queen and country and they may, for example, be leaving because they’ve failed a drugs test, suffered a training injury or something has gone wrong.

“They need support because they may be going back to a very difficult environment and added to that, they’ve failed. Which makes things even worse.”.h

Stats unlocked

From anecdote to data, here come the key facts and stats on ex-service personnel in prison.

Facts & Stats: Ex-Service personnel

      • 3.5 per cent of England and Wales’ prison population are ex-military personnel – that’s nearly 3,000 prisoners
      • Of these:
        • 99.6 per cent were male
        • 51 per cent were aged 45 or older
        • 77 per cent were ex-Army
        • 15 per cent were ex-Naval Service
        • 8 per cent were ex-RAF
      • The highest proportion of ex-Service personnel were located in high security prisons

Ex-service personnel and the wider prison population:

      • Ex-Service personnel were more likely to report feeling depressed or suicidal on arrival into prison – 18 per cent compared to 14 per cent of the general population
      • Physical health problems on arrival was higher – 24 per cent compared to 13 per cent for the general population
      • Ex-service personnel were more likely to be older, in prison for the first time and serving longer prison sentences:
Ex-Service Personnel General Prison Population
In prison for the first time 54% 34%
Serving a sentence over four years 63% 53%
Serving a sentence over ten years 39% 26%
Aged over 55 29% 9%
Felt unsafe in prison 37% 32%
Say they have been victimised by another prisoner 31% 24%

            • Evidence suggests ex-Service personnel are convicted of more violent crimes, rather than acquisitive crimes, as following table demonstrates:
Ex-Service Personnel General Prison Population
Violence against the person 32.9% 28.6%
Sexual offences 24.7% 10.9%
Drug offences 10.7% 15.4%
Robbery 7.2% 12.8%
Burglary 3.9% 11.5%
Fraud and forgery 1.4% 2.9%
Motoring offences 0.7% 1.6%


  • However a higher proportion of ex-service personnel reported feeling respected by prison staff and that there was a member of staff the at the prison they could turn to with a problem

The reports found:

  • The attribution of offending behaviour to PTSD is an overused explanation of the wide range of mental health and other issues experienced by ex-service personnel
  • Depression, often fuelled by alcohol misuse is a much greater problem than PTSD
  • The majority of those who have served their country re-enter civilian life with high rates of employment and lower rates of re-offending than the UK population as a whole
  • Vulnerability to poor health outcomes is more likely among those who leave the service early
  • Many would in the short term be recognised as having done well on leaving but commit offences resulting in custody a decade or so later
  • Servicemen who are the least likely to respond to help offered are probably those who need it the most
  • Many who have served in the Armed Forces have reservations about self-identifying either because of shame at behaviour or fears of personal safety
  • The identification of offenders as former service personnel is absolutely critical, both for their chances of rehabilitation and for proper policy making in future

Data used in this post comes from HMP Inspectorate: People in Prison: Ex-Service Personnel; The Howard League for Penal Reform: Report of the Inquiry into Former Armed Service Personnel in Prison and the Philips report into the Former Members of the Armed Forces and the Criminal Justice System

If you’d like to be added to the Prisons in the Press list to receive the newsletter every Friday, please email us at: UKprisonwatch@gmail.com 

One Comment on “Why do so many ex-servicemen end up in prison?”

  1. Norman Franklin says:

    The fact that ex-service is the highest occupation of sentenced prisoners is because hte unemployed prisoners do not come in that category.
    I note that many of the prisoners are middle aged, and being ex-service means they have re-settled very badly or service has nothing to do with the case.
    More work is needed


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