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How does prisoner categorisation work?

The relevant prison rules for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland provide for prisoners to be assigned a security category or supervision level.

This briefing offers a short guide to prisoner categorisation in each jurisdiction. 

Categorisation of prisoners in England and Wales centres around an assessment of risk and particularly the risk (and potential consequences) of escape.  Categorisation in Scotland and Northern Ireland works in a broadly similar way.

At one end of the scale for adult male prisoners in England and Wales, Category A is for prisoners whose escape would be highly dangerous to the public or the police or the security of the State and for whom the aim must be to make escape impossible.   At the other end of the scale, Category D is for those prisoners who present a low risk, can reasonably be trusted in open conditions and for whom open conditions are appropriate.

Is it working well?

Although instructions to prison governors in England and Wales state very plainly that prisoners should not be recategorised simply to enable them to be moved to where there are spaces within the prison estate, the Prison Officers’ Association has been alleging for some time that the recategorisation process is flawed, with unsuitable prisoners being sent to open conditions.  This briefing also describes that controversy.

Another controversial issue has been the removal of legal aid from many areas of prison law in England and Wales, as part of ongoing reforms to legal aid.  Legal aid is no longer available for challenges to recategorisation decisions, although is available for judicial review.  It has been argued that this both leads to poorer quality decisions and makes it more difficult for prisoners to challenge those decisions.

Further reading

Further briefings about prisons are available on Parliament’s topic page for prisons.

Further briefings about legal aid are available on Parliament’s topic page for legal aid.

Documents to download

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