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For lots of us, the prison system isn’t something we are exposed to, or know much about.

If you’d like to volunteer with us but would like know a bit more about how it all works, we’ve summarised some key points and gathered some resources to point you in the right direction. 

For more in-depth perspectives, please see our Podcasts etc page - and don’t hesitate to contact one of the team if you have any questions!


  • There are 117 prisons in England and Wales. 104 are public prisons, run by HMPPS; 13 are private prisons runs by companies such as G4S, Sodexo and Serco. 

  • The imprisonment rate for England and Wales is the highest in western Europe. 40,000 people were sent to prison in 2020: around 63% had committed a non-violent offence and 44% were sentenced to six months or less.  

  • England and Wales have more people serving life sentences than France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden combined. 

  • Prisons are hugely overcrowded - the UK prison population has risen by 73% in the past 30 years and is projected to rise by a further 20,000 by 2026 (from just below 80,000 to 98,700) 

  • Staffing in prison has reduced enormously over the last decade. There are about 12% fewer prison staff now than there were in 2010 

  • We have an ageing prison population. There are almost triple the number of people aged 60+ in prison than there were 16 years ago. 


(Source: The Corbett Network) 


The prison system is managed by Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), overseen by the Ministry of Justice. There are also other types of detention facilities, such as Immigration Removal Centres run by the Home Office. 

Prisons are divided into categories of security. When someone enters the system, they will usually initially be sent to a LOCAL PRISON. These are where a defendant will be assessed, usually local to the area of the court where their trial is held.

Once a person with a conviction has been sentenced, they will normally be sent to a DISPERSAL PRISON, where the sentence will be served. 

They are assigned to a security category based on how likely they might be to try and escape, the risk to the public if they were successful, and whether they might pose any threat to the control and stability of a prison (for example, through violence). People in prison can then progress through these security categories towards ‘open’ prisons over the course of their sentence. 

It's important to remember that issues such as overpopulation and high prisoner turnover mean that security isn’t always the sole reason an individual is placed in a certain prison. We work with a huge range of people, each with their own individual story.

People can be placed in any kind of prison for any kind of offence, and Sing Inside works across all prison security categories.

The different security categories look like this: 

Prison type




Male offender security category


  • Standard Risk

  • High Risk

  • Exception Risk

(assigned depending on risk of escaping)


(including remand prisoners)



Sometimes called 'training' or 'resettlement' prisons


Female offender security category















Maximum security.  Pose the greatest threat to the public or national security if they were to escape.

Maximum security not required, but it needs to be difficult to escape. 

Maximum security not required, but open conditions are not appropriate. Escape attempts are unlikely.  

Reasonably trusted not to try to escape.  Some prisoners may be granted Release On Temporary Licence (ROTL) to work in the community or go on "home leave". 

What is it like?

Because offenders in these prisons tend to have longer sentences, they can be settled for longer periods of time than those in Category B and remand prisons. For Sing Inside this means we often return and work with the same people. These are high security environments, and we prepare volunteers for this in our briefing sessions.  

The high turnover in these prisons means that offenders do not have much stability.  These prisons often have the greatest variety of needs. 

Women’s prisons 

Women in prison make up just 4% of the overall prison population and the majority of female offenders are imprisoned for less than six months. Custodial sentences often have disproportionately large consequences for women, such as loss of homes, jobs, and having their children or dependents taken into care. The lack of women's prisons also means that female offenders are housed long distances from family.

Many women in prison will have been victims of crime or abuse and suffered trauma, and in 2020 women made up 22% of all self-harm incidents in prison.

Other solutions such as women’s community centres present alternative ways to support women within the community, rather than through imprisonment. The charity Women in Prison provide excellent services and advocacy for women in contact with the criminal justice system. 


Transgender prisoners

Transgender people make up an even smaller proportion of prison populations: according to the latest HMPPS  Offender Equalities Annual Report, there were 197 transgender people in prison in 2021, only around 0.25% of the total prison population. Transgender individuals may appeal to go to the type of prison they prefer, and these decisions are made by Transgender Case Boards on a case by case basis. The High Court recently ruled that it is lawful for a prisoner who was born male but identifies as female to be housed in a female prison.


Transgender people experience significant discrimination across society and the resulting detrimental impacts on health and wellbeing can be serious: in the general population, 46% of transgender people have thought about taking their own life (Stonewall, 2018). In the context of prisons, this issue can become even more challenging. In 2021, over 80% of transgender prisoners were housed in the wrong prison for their gender which can have significant impacts on individual wellbeing (HMPPS, 2021). The charity Women in Prison have a statement on transgender people in prison that goes into more detail, and the charity Stonewall also provides helpful information.



The Government website holds the official guidance on life in prison.

However, this excellent guide from DoingTime goes into greater detail on day-to-day life, including on incentives and privileges system, prison rules, and what to expect:

And the Prison Reform Trust has some great factsheets on specific areas of prison life.



Most prisons have the same basic departments or facilities. These usually include:

  • A gatehouse and reception

  • A visitors’ centre

  • A canteen

  • An education or workshops area

  • A gym and exercise area

  • An Offender Management Unit (where staff help residents manage their sentences)

  • A healthcare wing

  • A Chaplaincy or multifaith room for emotional and spiritual support

  • A segregation unit for safety or discipline.

Prisoners are walked between these sites either under specific escort or at “movements” pre-determined by the “prison regime”.  The timings of this regime tend to determine when Sing Inside can move around the prison, and when prisoners arrive at our workshops. 

Prisoners are not segregated by reference to their crime. However, the prison will segregate vulnerable prisoners ("VP"s) from the “mainstream” population as far as possible. A prisoner may be deemed a VP if they are at risk of self-harm, bullying, or attack if kept with the mainstream prison population. 

Other specialist wings include Psychologically Informed Planned Environments (“PIPE units”) which aim to provide prisoners with progression support after a period of high-intensity treatment or programmes during their sentence. 

Sing Inside works with people from across the prison population, and we tailor our programmes to meet different needs. 



The primary purpose of prison staff is “to carry out the instructions of the courts, and to ensure that society is protected”. There are many different types of prison staff, all of whom Sing Inside must communicate with in order to build and maintain a relationship with a prison.

Uniformed staff manage the day-to-day running of the prison. They are either

  • Officer Support

  • Prison Officer

  •  Supervising Officers, or

  • Custodial Managers. 

Non-uniformed staff are prison Governors. These people manage the overall running of the prison including finance, programmes and procedures, and the prison’s overall development. Within any prison there can be many governors of various grades and specialties (e.g. operations, security, regimes, etc). They will report to a top-ranking governor often described as the “No.1 Governor”. 

Service Providers also work within the prison, such as those who work within the chaplaincy, education department, in healthcare, or employment. Administrative staff will support the running of the prison more generally.

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