The recent prison escape of the terror suspect Daniel Khalife has brought the crisis to light, Ben Keith writes

Ben Keith features in The Times, published 19 October 2023. Click here to view the article on The Times' Website. 

The UK prison system is broken. The government has trawled through history to look for a solution and has settled on the 18th century to tackle a 21st-century problem.

Its announced solution to prison overcrowding is transportation. Not sending convicts to Australia, as our ancestors did, but renting prison space from countries such as Estonia.

The UK has been criticised for several years for the dismal state of its prisons. Jails are falling into disrepair, are severely overcrowded, dilapidated and security personnel are under-resourced, leading to violence among inmates. A recent inquest report even found that “prison inmates [are] at risk of death owing to healthcare failings.”

The failure of extraditions owing to inhumane conditions of detention in the destination country is a regular issue — courts have been dealing with inadequate European prison conditions for years. But now the UK has joined the list of dire prison estates and is becoming a laughing stock.

Germany recently refused the extradition of an Albanian man to the UK despite alleged drug trafficking and money laundering crimes because of chronic overcrowding and violence in British institutions. Since the UK left the EU, it can no longer rely on the European arrest warrant and, as a third country, ought to provide assurances about prison conditions, but was unable in this particular example to do so. Instead, it informed the German court of plans to build prison spaces to tackle overcrowding at an unnamed date in the future.

In July, an Irish court refused extradition on the grounds that prison overcrowding would result in the requested person being locked up for 22 hours a day. The problem is not new — in 2019 a Dutch court refused extradition after prison inspectors described “some of the most disturbing conditions... ever seen”, which, they said, had “no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century”. But the warnings were not heeded.

The recent prison escape scandal has brought the crisis to light. Daniel Khalife, on remand at HMP Wandsworth, one of the UK’s largest prisons, managed a spectacular escape, while strapped under a delivery truck.

The response from Alex Chalk KC, the justice secretary, was to state that that such incidents “are very rare” and investment into the prison system is “the largest since the Victorian era”. His responses are not exactly reassuring.

Khalife’s escape speaks volumes about the poor state of UK prisons. While the Ministry of Justice has admitted that Wandsworth prison was 40 per cent understaffed on the day of the escape, the underlying problem of the prison crisis is chronic underfunding, no long-term plan and lack of care.

Until the prison estate and sentencing policy are significantly overhauled, terrible conditions that lead to risks to prisoners and society as a whole will continue.

Ben Keith is a leading barrister specialising in cross-border and international cases. He deals with all aspects of Extradition, Human Rights, Mutual Legal Assistance, Interpol, Financial crime and International Law including sanctions. He represents governments, political and military leaders, High Net Worth individuals, human rights defenders and business leaders in the most sensitive cases.

He has extensive experience of appellate proceedings before the Administrative and Divisional Courts, Civil and Criminal Divisions of the Court of Appeal as well as applications and appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and United Nations. Ben is recognised in Chambers and Partners and The Legal 500.