Recall to prison

A summary of evidence relating to what we know about who is recalled to prison, and the experience of recall.

The purpose of recall is public protection. People are recalled to prison if their behaviour indicates an increased risk of serious harm to the public. People on determinate sentences are recalled if their behaviour indicates an increased risk of further offending, which cannot be safely managed in the community.

Read more about recall

On 31 December 2018 there were 6,965 recalled prisoners in custody in England and Wales. They had breached their licence conditions and were returned to prison by HM Prison and Probation Service, on behalf of the Secretary of State. This number has steadily increased over time.

What is the evidence like and what does it say?

There is little published research about the process and experience of recall in the UK. Research, focus groups and surveys undertaken in 2016 into the experience of recall, suggest how we might improve the management of people on recall.

What do we know about recalled prisoners?

Research1 shows that:

People on recall average 33 years old - two years younger than the sentenced prison population. About 45% have been back in custody for less than six months, but about 20% have been back more than a year. The most common reasons for recall include:

  • poor behaviour - non-compliance (43%)
  • further charges (23%)
  • failure to reside at an agreed address (12%)
  • being out of touch (9%)

Compared with the sentenced prison population, recalled prisoners are:

  • more likely to be reconvicted for a violent, sexual, serious, or any offence - they are more likely to be assessed as at High Risk of Serious Harm
  • high-risk, they have more risk factors than other prisoners except drug misuse and have more serious difficulties with problem solving, temper control, impulsivity, problematic drinking and domestic violence
  • vulnerable, they have poor emotional wellbeing, learning difficulties and personality disorders - many also have moderate to severe difficulties with coping, emotional stability, social isolation and psychological problems including anxiety and depression
  • mostly on standard recall and could remain in custody until the end of their sentences
  • many more are suitable for accredited interventions than have attended them - this suggests missed opportunities to address their needs and progress to re-release

How is recall experienced?

Emotional vulnerability, anxiety and emotional distress. Rather than being rehabilitative, recall is experienced as punitive, unjust or unfair. Perceiving procedures as unjust is linked to defiance and non-compliance.

Loss of relationships, parenting roles, accommodation and employment. This should be recognised by all who deal with recalled prisoners. Relationships, pro-social networks, hope and being believed in help people desist from offending. But these are particularly scarce for recalled prisoners.

Loss of control and sense of powerlessness has negative implications. It can hinder re-adjustment to prison life and success on re-release. Powerlessness and frustration are often due to delays and difficulties accessing opportunities to progress.

Offender Managers also experience barriers like difficulties in managing large caseloads. Prisons are also challenged to meet the complex needs of their populations with limited resources.

Prisoners want, but experience little, collaborative working in their recall management. Collaboration, where prisoners have a voice, may encourage more meaningful engagement and compliance. Recall harms the Offender Manager - recalled prisoner relationship. Offender Managers may underestimate the extent of this.

Women feel particularly vulnerable immediately before and after their initial release. Women feel inadequate preparation for their first release contributes to their recall. Feeling under-prepared, alone and unsupported on release can leave them feeling ‘set up to fail’.

Men may feel most stranded and alone once they are back in custody. This suggests the potential need for extra support, and to be most effective, at different times for men and women.

The experience of recall is predominantly negative. But recalled prisoners do want, and are motivated to achieve, a different future. Acknowledging, reinforcing and supporting this may enhance the rehabilitative nature of recall.

How could we make recall more rehabilitative?

Refining recall and re-release processes to encourage collaborative, trusting relationships between prisoners and staff. This could include things like:

  • providing clear and timely information about licence, recall reasons and how to progress to re-release.
  • placing greater emphasis on communication and collaboration in the setting of: licence conditions, progression to re-release plans and assessments of risk for re-release
  • promoting relationships based on trust, openness and rehabilitation which: reward and recognise success, communicate hope and belief in the person’s chance of success, and empathise with any distress caused by recall
  • actively seeking opportunities, including and beyond Offending Behaviour Programmes to address concerns, and prepare for release - this might include rehabilitative opportunities in the community following release

Further reading

Enforcement and Recall A thematic inspection by HM Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP 2018)

Female Offender Strategy for women in the criminal justice system (MoJ 2018) Sets out The Government’s plan to improve outcomes for women in the community and custody which in turn seeks to reduce the likelihood of their being recalled to prison


  1. Understanding the process and experience of recall to prison Analytical Summary. Four studies conducted to develop an evidence-based and systematic approach for the management of determinate sentenced prisoners on standard recall (HMPPS 2018), and Evidence-based principles for the effective management and progression of people recalled to prison (HMPPS 2018)

This page summarises the available evidence base and is informed by independent academic peer review. It does not represent Ministry of Justice or Government policy.

Published 15 May 2019