Work to rehabilitate life sentence prisoners could improve, say inspectors

Most life sentence prisoners did not reoffend and were able to lead productive lives on release, said Liz Calderbank, Chief Inspector of Probation, and Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, publishing the report of a joint inspection into life sentence prisoners. However, they added that the work done with life sentence prisoners at key points in their sentence could be improved.

Although life sentenced prisoners have committed the most serious crimes, most will be released at some point. The public have a right to expect that this will not happen unless they can be safely managed within the community and effectively supervised and monitored. One of the key transitional phases in the life sentence is the move from a closed prison to the relative freedom of open conditions. This inspection focused on that period along with the equally significant release on life licence to see how well life sentence prisoners were supported in preparing for release, reducing risk of harm and likelihood of reoffending, maintaining family and community links and resettling into society.
Most life sentence prisoners, once released, are successfully integrated back into the community. However, inspectors also found that improvements could be made in the work carried out with these prisoners, and in particular, that:
  • assumptions were often made that life sentence prisoners knew all about ‘the system’ which led to an underestimation of the amount of advice and help they needed;
  • they were treated much the same as other prisoners, with little attention being given to their particular circumstances and as a result, some were able to serve their sentence with relatively little challenge to their attitudes and behaviour;
  • once in open conditions, preparation for release relied heavily upon release on temporary licence (ROTL) and planning for this needed to be improved;
  • the quality of offender assessments, particularly those completed in custody, left room for improvement and confusion abounded about who was responsible for completing these assessments at key times in the sentence; and
  • sentence planning was weak and probation staff struggled to design meaningful objectives for those who appeared to have done all required work in custody.
The chief inspectors made nine recommendations for improvement for the National Offender Management Service, prisons and probation trusts.
Liz Calderbank and Nick Hardwick said: 
“The vast majority of those on life licence formed positive relationships with their offender managers, did not reoffend and, despite the stigma of a life sentence, were able to lead useful and productive lives after release. This inspection highlights the importance of both the work undertaken with the prisoner throughout their sentence to address their behaviour and the need for effective joint work between the prison and community to plan and prepare for safe release. This complementary balance is essential for rehabilitation.”
For further information, please contact Jane Parsons, HMI Probation press office on 020 7035 2123 or 07880 787452.

Notes to editors:

  1. View a  copy of the full report (PDF, 1 MB).
  2. Only 2.2% of those sentenced to a mandatory life sentence and 4.8% of those serving other life sentences reoffended in any way, compared to 46.9% of the overall prison population. See (25 July 2013), Table 19a, ‘Adult proven re-offending data, by custodial sentence length, 2000, 2002 to September 2011’, Proven re-offending tables – October 2010 to September 2011, Ministry of Justice, London.
  3. The number of prisoners sentenced to an indeterminate sentence of imprisonment has increased over recent years. Such prisoners now make up 16% of the prison population (as at 31 March 2013), compared with only 9% in 1995.
  4. Inspectors visited six Probation Trusts and six prisons during the course of the inspection. The Trusts visited were: Avon & Somerset, Cheshire, Kent, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Surrey & Sussex. The prisons visited were: HMP East Sutton Park, HMP Kirkham, HMP North Sea Camp, HMP Risley, HMP Send and HMP Shepton Mallet.
  5. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation is an independent inspectorate, sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, and reporting directly to the Secretary of State on the effectiveness of work with individual adults, children and young people who offend, aimed at reducing reoffending and protecting the public.
  6. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.