David Cameron prison reforms
David Cameron will argue that prisoners should be treated as potential assets rather than liabilities Toby Melville/Reuters

Prime Minister David Cameron is set to announce a major shakeup of the UK prison system, which he described as "scandalous". As part of the sweeping changes, he will grant more powers to prison governors and push for the inmates to be treated as potential assets rather than liabilities.

In his attempt to reform the penal system, Cameron will admit that "current levels of prison violence, drug-taking and self-harm should shame us all". Downing Street considers Cameron's speech – which will lay out the strategy on Monday (8 February) – as the first such initiative solely focusing on prison reforms in nearly two decades.

The Tory prime minister is due to say: "It can be easy for us all - when prisons are closed off by high walls and barbed wire - to adopt an 'out of sight, out of mind' attitude. I want this government to be different." To begin with, six jails are to achieve the "reforms prisons" status by the end of 2016, while half of the 121 facilities across England and Wales would acquire complete autonomy in 2020. The reforms are to be rolled out via the Prisons Bill in the upcoming parliament session.

During his speech in London, Cameron will argue: "The failure of our system today is scandalous. Forty-six percent of all prisoners will re-offend within a year of release; 60% of short-sentenced prisoners will re-offend within the same period. And current levels of prison violence, drug-taking and self-harm should shame us all."

"In a typical week, there will be almost 600 incidents of self-harm; at least one suicide; and 350 assaults, including 90 on staff. This failure really matters." With his recalibrated plans on prisons, the Conservative prime minister is sharply moving away from the policy of former Tory leaders that "prison works". He will say: "In short: we need a prison system that doesn't see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed."

Cameron's speech is to be hailed by Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who earlier floated the idea of granting greater powers to prison governors. Penal reform charities have also cautiously welcomed Cameron's initiative, but insist that more such plans are necessary.

The chief executive of Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook said: "Prisons are currently violent and overcrowded. As such, they fail everyone: victims, the public, staff and prisoners themselves. Prison reform, however, is the tip of the iceberg. Improved education and increased autonomy for governors will not work if there are people crammed into filthy institutions with no staff to open the cell doors."

"We need action now to tackle sentence inflation and the profligate use of prison. Then the prime minister's vision can become a reality."