"An astonishing 98 per cent of Britain's prison population have been granted 'privileges' supposedly reserved for better-behaved offenders, it emerged last night." Daily Mail, 13 June 2011
Justice Secretary Ken Clarke's proposals to reduce the UK's prison population by 3,000 has sparked furious debate over the punishment and treatment of offenders.
Full Fact has already worked hard to ensure that arguments over whether or not 'prison works' are grounded in the facts, however today's Daily Mail has a different angle on the ongoing controversy: are those that are actually given custodial sentences treated too leniently?
Back in April, Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft commissioned a survey which found that the perception that prison life was "not hard enough" was the number one explanation given by both police officers and members of the public for high reoffending rates.
The Mail gives further weight to this viewpoint by citing research from the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange suggesting that 98 per cent of inmates are enjoying perks such as TV sets in cells, greater visiting time and access to games consoles.
So is a life of crime rewarded with the life of Riley? Full Fact took a look.
The Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme was introduced to Britain's prisons in 1995, and set out three levels of privileges for inmates: Basic, Standard and Enhanced. Prisoners can be moved between these privilege levels as a result of good and poor conduct.
The figures quoted by the Mail as having "emerged last night" actually date from a Parliamentary Answer given by Justice Minister Crispin Blunt back in March, used by Policy Exchange in its "Inside Job" report.
As the Mail and Policy Exchange both identified, the proportion of the 81,253 prisoners on the scheme that were on the basic level was just under 2 per cent, leaving the remaining 98 per cent on the standard and higher levels of privilege.
So does this mean that all these prisoners are enjoying benefits which are "supposedly reserved for better-behaved offenders"?
Not necessarily. As the Ministry of Justice set out in a review of the scheme in 2006: "On entering custody, all prisoners must be placed initially on the standard privilege level."
This means that this is the de facto neutral privilege level, with better behaviour being rewarded with enhanced privileges and bad behaviour punished with demotion to a basic privilege level. If our understanding of "better-behaved offenders" is restricted to those that have been explicitly rewarded for their conduct, the proportion enjoying these benefits falls to 42 per cent.
While this distinction is made clear in the Policy Exchange report, the nuance does seem to have been lost in the Mail's story.
However some aspects of the Policy Exchange analysis do merit closer scrutiny, particularly its conclusion that there has been a softening in the enforcement of privileges over the past half decade.
The think tank claims that: "In recent years the proportion of prisoners on the enhanced level has increased from 39 per cent to 42 per cent. With just 1,400 prisoners, less than 2 per cent of prisoners, on the basic level, prison has become an increasingly comfortable environment for offenders."
While it is certainly the case that the number and proportion of offenders on the enhanced privilege level has increased over the past half-decade Policy Exchange neglects to mention that the same can also be said for those on the basic level.
Over the past year, the rise in the numbers on the enhanced level and the basic level is very similar, with a 6.8 per cent growth in the former group and a 6.2 per cent jump in the latter. Since 2005/06, growth in the number of prisoners on the basic rate has actually outstripped that of those on enhanced privileges (23.3 per cent to 18.9 per cent). Similarly the proportion of prisoners on basic privileges has risen from 1.5 per cent to 1.7 per cent over the same period.
The figures unearthed by Policy Exchange and reported in the Mail undoubtedly show that far more prisoners are moved up to a higher level of privilege than are moved down to the basic level.
However the conclusion drawn by the Mail that 98 per cent of inmates enjoy benefits reserved for 'better-behaved' offenders ignores the fact that the standard level of privilege is the level at which new prisoners are entered into the scheme. Not all prisoners at this level have therefore had any assessment made of their conduct, meaning that it is difficult to substantiate the claim that this level of privilege is reserved for those commended for good behaviour.
Furthermore, the conclusion drawn by Policy Exchange that prisons are becoming "increasingly comfortable" relies solely on the expansion of numbers on the higher privilege level, and does not account for the similar proportional rises in the numbers on the basic level.