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28 October 2016

Prison numbers shoot past 85,000 as population goes up by more than 1,000 in under two months

The prison population in England and Wales has gone over 85,000 after an increase of more than 1,000 people from the beginning of September, statistics published today (28 October) by the Ministry of Justice reveal. 

The number of people in prison now stands at 85,108. On 2 September the figure was 84,066.

While prison numbers tend to fluctuate during the course of a year, the rapid increase is unusual, and will have placed additional pressure on an already overcrowded and overstretched prison system experiencing record levels of violence, self-harm, and self-inflicted deaths.

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 current useable operational capacity in the prison estate is 86,146, meaning there are just over 1,000 places available before it is unable to take any more people. Prisons in England and Wales have been systematically overcrowded for decades, with some large local establishments operating significantly over their uncrowded capacity or certified normal accommodation (CNA). For instance, Pentonville prison currently houses 1,290 men but is designed and built to hold 906.

Although the cause of the sudden increase in prison numbers is uncertain, recent reforms have placed upward pressure on the prison population. Following the introduction in February 2015 of mandatory minimum year-long supervision of all prisoners sentenced to one day or more in custody under the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, government statistics have shown increasing numbers of short sentenced prisoners being recalled to prison for breach of their licence conditions.

Figures released yesterday by the Ministry of Justice show that 4,932 adults were recalled for breaching the conditions of their licence in the period between April and June 2016. 1,802 were for offenders serving a sentence of less than 12 months, an increase of 89% compared with the same period in 2015.The number of adult women serving sentences of less than 12 months recalled to custody is up a staggering 149% over the same time period.

Other factors which may account for the increase in prison numbers include annual variations in the court caseload, a spike in numbers being sentenced to remand or immediate custody, and the impact of existing and longstanding inflationary pressures.

The prison population has increased by around 40,000 since 1993. Almost all of this increase 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. Of these,3,859 are serving an indeterminate sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP), a sentence which was abolished in 2012. The vast majority of IPP prisoners (3,200) in custody have exceeded their tariff expiry date.

Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“As if prisons weren’t under enough pressure they now face an unpredicted and sudden surge in numbers. Getting a grip on how we use prison is where reform must start. Otherwise this government, like its predecessors, will just be chasing its tail.”