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24 August 2023

Prisons are at breaking point

Political parties compete over punishing offenders – but the prison population has already doubled since 1993.

By David Gauke

For most of us, a dull and cool summer may be something of a disappointment. But for senior figures at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and His Majesty’s Prisons and Probation Service, it is something of a relief. Hot weather can make the conditions in prisons even more uncomfortable. Uncomfortable conditions increase the chances of prison riots. Prison riots, in turn, can take out of use a large number of cells, thereby reducing capacity. And currently, there is very little capacity within our prison system.

Numbers published last week showed that the prison population in England and Wales was 87,012. The population is increasing. At the beginning of the year the prison population was 82,212; ten weeks ago it was 85,246. The population has increased each and every week since then, at an average of around 150 per week.

The supply of prison places has also increased and remained ahead of demand, but only just. Since the beginning of the year, officials have been able to rustle up an additional 3,381 places, often by installing prefabricated rapid deployment cells within existing prisons. Even so, through 2023 spare capacity has already fallen from 2,219 (or 2.6 per cent) at the beginning of the year to 800 (or 0.9 per cent) today.

There are two major problems with this. First, running the prison service with little spare capacity is immensely challenging. When a prison is in difficulty and needs to be turned around, it is customary to reduce the number of prisoners to allow that to happen – but at present, that is not an option. Second, as senior officials will privately admit, the scope for further increasing capacity is now very limited. A newly opened prison, HMP Fosse Way, will house just under 2,000 men but, beyond that, there are not many more cells that can be brought into operation for the next few months.

Demand will soon exceed supply, with a leaked MoJ document suggesting a shortfall of 2,300 by March 2025. The nightmare scenario for any justice secretary is the possibility of being forced into releasing prisoners near the end of their sentence early to free up space. This is now a realistic prospect. To put this in context, as recently as 1993 the prison population was 43,000 – half of what it is now. From that point until 2010, the population almost doubled. The reason for the increase was simple. Prison sentences got longer.

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One of my earliest experiences as justice secretary, from 2018-19, was sitting down with a senior judge who explained that those convicted now faced very much longer sentences than they would have done for the same offence a generation ago. In particular, every time parliament imposed a new minimum sentence for one offence, it not only increased sentences for that specific offence but ratcheted up sentences for similar offences.

That the total prison population stabilised after 2010 came as something of a surprise to the MoJ, but a welcome one. Certainly, given how the department’s budget was cut, continued increases in the prison population would have been untenable. Falling police numbers clearly had an impact on the number of convictions and, therefore, prisoners. That fall in police numbers has now been reversed which partly explains why the MoJ’s central estimate is a prison population of approximately 100,000 by March 2027. 

Let us return to the immediate situation. If increasing the supply of places is difficult (new prisons are expensive and unpopular with local residents), the alternative approach is to reduce demand. In my time at the MoJ, the prisons minister Rory Stewart and I sought to end short sentences in all but exceptional circumstances. We found short sentences were ineffective (and often counterproductive) when it came to reducing reoffending. To get rid of them would not have totally solved the issue – but it would have gone some way in helping. 

The policy was dropped by the Johnson government, and it is now briefed that minimum custodial sentences will be imposed on shoplifters. No doubt this polls well – but it is not clear exactly where these additional prisoners are going to go.

We are already an outlier in Europe when it comes to the prison population. For every 100,000 people, the Germans, Danes, Norwegians and Dutch imprison fewer than 70 people; in France and Spain, it is just over a hundred; in England and Wales, 144. 

In these circumstances, restoring confidence in community sentences for minor offenders should be the priority. This should be combined with much greater use of electronic monitoring. Monitoring has advanced so that it does more than ensure that an offender complied with a curfew by being at a specified place at a specified time, but can be used to track their precise movements at all times. Alcohol tags can also be used to monitor alcohol levels (an issue for many offenders). More electronic monitoring will be cheaper, more effective in reducing reoffending, and relieve pressure on prison places – but it should also reassure the public that offenders are being supervised.

That would be desirable, but we already appear to be in the long campaign for the next general election when the only punishment that counts is prison. In those circumstances, we can expect a bidding war as to which party will promise to charge, convict and incarcerate the most people. The reality, however, is that such talk is worthless. Whatever the case for increasing our prison population in the long term (and, in my view, it is a poor one), imprisoning many more people in the short term is simply impossible.

[See also: “Stop the boats” is a delusion]

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