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11 November 2016

PRT comment: Government must tackle rising prison numbers to make reform plans work

Ahead of today’s government announcement on prison reform, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: 

“The time for aspirational rhetoric on prisons is over. We expect a White Paper that promises concrete standards, approved by Parliament, against which the Government must deliver, and a boost in resources to make that possible. All of that will be welcome. But the legacy is twenty five years of political failure to grip prison inflation and chronic overcrowding. Liz Truss will have to overturn that inheritance, and urgently reduce the demand for prison places, to make her plan work.”

Prison population

The prison population has increased by around 40,000 since 1993 and current stands at 85,108. Prison numbers have increased by over 1,000 people in the past two months.

The Ministry of Justice’s latest prison population projection, published in August, predicted prison numbers to remain largely stable over the period of the projection horizon to March 2021.

The following chart shows the rise of the prison population in England and Wales from 45,000 in 1986 to nearly 90,000 in 2016


The following graph shows that the prison population has risen by 1,000 people between September to November 2016.

Prisons in England and Wales have been systematically overcrowded for decades. The estate’s uncrowded capacity, or in use certified normal accommodation (in use CNA), is 75,440. This means the prison estate is currently housing just under 10,000 more people than it was designed and built to hold. This represents nearly the total investment in prison places (10,000) promised by the government by the end of this parliament.

Some large local establishments are operating significantly over their certified normal accommodation (CNA). For instance, Pentonville prison currently houses 1,290 men but is designed and built to hold 906.This means up to around 800 men housed in overcrowded accommodation.

Almost all of this increase in prison numbers in the past two decades can be accounted for by the rise in the number of prisoners sentenced to immediate custody. There were around 40,000 more prisoners serving immediate custodial sentences in 2016 compared to 1993.

Prison sentences have been getting longer with more and more people serving long determinate or indeterminate sentences.

Currently 11,178 people in prison are serving a life or other form of indeterminate sentence. England and Wales have more than three times as many people serving indeterminate sentences than France, Germany and Italy combined—the highest in Europe by a significant margin.

3,859 people are serving an indeterminate sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP), a form of indeterminate sentence which was abolished in 2012. The vast majority of IPP prisoners (3,200) in custody have exceeded their tariff expiry date.

Staffing and resources

Between 2010/11 – 2014/15, the National Offender Management Service reduced its budget by nearly a quarter, amounting to savings of nearly £900m.

There were 14,690 prison officers working in public prisons as of June 2016, over a quarter (26%) fewer than in 2010.

£56.5m was spent on severance payments to prison officers under the voluntary early departure scheme in 2013.

Prisons are faced with high sickness levels amongst staff. In 2014–15 the average number of working days lost to sickness absence was 11.1 days, a rise from 9.8 days in 2011-12. This compares to an average of 4.4 days per worker in the labour market as a whole.