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06 October 2010

Chief Inspector’s annual report warns that prisons are at a crossroads

In her annual report, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, warns that the prison system is at a crossroads – struggling to cope with the current pressure placed upon it.

She said:

“During the reporting year, the prison population went from one all-time high to another, staving off disaster only by a series of short-term, often expensive, emergency measures, together with the crisis management skills of those working within the prison system.”

At the same time, there has been a dramatic rise in self inflicted deaths in custody, which rose by forty percent during the reporting year. Many were amongst some of the most vulnerable – foreign nationals, indeterminate-sentenced and unsentenced prisoners and women – and at the most vulnerable times, in the early days in an establishment.

Commenting on the report Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“This is as clear and stark a message as is possible for ministers to hear from an independent Chief Inspector of Prisons.

“Despite the efforts of prison staff, our prisons are struggling to cope with overcrowding, the service is lurching from crisis to crisis and it is difficult to see how much longer this can go on. Ministers have a choice to make: do we carry on with record numbers in prison with sky high reoffending rates, or do we recognise that our costly overuse of prisons isn’t making the public any safer.

“The Chief Inspector’s call for a Royal Commission, or a major public inquiry, is welcome and comes almost a year after the Archbishop of Canterbury called for a ‘comprehensive commission on penal policy and non-custodial options’ when he delivered the Prison Reform Trust’s annual lecture.

“The strain is telling – we need a fundamental re-think on the purpose and use of prisons.”



  • On 25 January, 2008, the prison population in England & Wales was 80,778
  • In 2006, 128,986 people entered prison in England & Wales.
  • A 22% increase in the prison population since 1997 is estimated to have reduced crime by around 5% during a period when overall crime fell by 30% due to other measures and trends (research by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit highlighted in the 2003 Carter report).
  • At the end of December 2007, 83 of the 141 prisons in England & Wales were overcrowded.
  • Reoffending rates remain high – two in three prisoners are re-convicted within two years of being released. For young men aged 18-20 years, the reoffending rate is 74%.
  • There were 92 suicides in prison in 2007, a rise of 37% on the previous year, according to the Ministry of Justice.  The number of prisoners taking their own lives had previously appeared to be falling, with 67 in 2006, down from 78 in 2005 and 95 in 2004.
  • The report is also a testimony to the effectiveness of the prisons inspectorate over 70% of whose recommendations for reform are implemented by establishments.