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19 June 2024

Britain’s prisons are at breaking point

Labour must address the overcrowding crisis, however unpalatable the solutions.

By Hannah Barnes

No one is under any illusions about the scale of the task a new Labour government will face. As this issue of the New Statesman contends, the party will need to fix a nation where much is broken, where fundamental services – schools, hospitals, transport – don’t seem to work any more. But perhaps the most urgent problem is something that has received next to no attention during this election campaign: our prisons. Those working in the justice system do not mince their words. Prisons need urgent reform; there are many problems.

When it emerged in March that a teenage girl had been stripped naked – twice – by an all-male team of prison officers at Wetherby Young Offender Institution, there was justifiable outrage. It was a damning indictment of how our society has failed its most vulnerable. Girls were never meant to have been at Wetherby – an institution designed for boys who have often committed violent offences. A small number of girls were moved there in June 2021 when Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre, where they had been held, was closed. It was meant to be a temporary solution, but three years on they are still at Wetherby. There is simply nowhere for them to go. Capacity at the only remaining secure training centre, Oakhill, is severely reduced. And secure children’s homes are said to frequently refuse to take these girls.

The most pressing problem with Britain’s prisons, however, is overcrowding. According to figures published on 14 June, 87,347 people are incarcerated in England and Wales. There are fewer than 1,500 places remaining. It is possible that over the summer we might run out of prison space. “If you lost a couple of wings, you’d be in real trouble,” one source told me.

There are several reasons our prisons are so full. The proportion of the prison population on remand – either awaiting trial or sentencing – is the highest it has ever been. This is true both as a proportion (19 per cent) and in total (16,458). In the past the remand population has typically been around 11 or 12 per cent.

The “recall prison population” – those who are returned to jail for breaching their release conditions – is also at a record high: 12,344 people, or 14 per cent of the prison population, at the end of March. Of the four criteria prisons are inspected on – safety; respect; rehabilitation and release planning; and “purposeful activity” – performance in the last has been “catastrophically bad”, I’m told, since Covid. Of 37 adult-male prisons inspected in 2022-23, just one was rated good for purposeful activity, which is defined as pursuits that promote citizenship or develop learning and life skills. “If you’re a prison governor and you get a ‘one’ for safety, you know you’re getting a bollocking,” an insider told me. “If you get a ‘one’ for purposeful activity, it’s no more than a shoulder shrug.” And, as Marina Wheeler writes in our “How to fix a nation” series, “rehabilitation appears abandoned”: just one prison was rated good on this front too. What if we could reduce the prison population by helping people not reoffend once released?

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We’re also sending people to prison for longer. Despite public perception that sentencing is not harsh enough, sentence lengths have increased significantly over the past 25 years. According to the Prison Reform Trust, the average minimum term imposed for murder rose from 13 years in 2000 to 21 years in 2021. People serving mandatory life sentences for murder are now spending 18 years in custody on average, compared to 13 years in 2001.

The average prison sentence for serious, indictable offences – such as rape or possession of a firearm – is a little over five years, two years longer than in 2008.

What can the incoming government do? The situation is only going to get worse. Official prison population projections suggest that the number of people serving time at His Majesty’s pleasure will increase to 114,800 by March 2028. That would require an additional 26,000 places to be created. The number of prisoners on remand, long sentences and a large backlog of court cases are all cited as contributing factors. Some working in the system believe the fear of the problem blowing up may have been a factor in Rishi Sunak calling the election earlier than expected.

Can Labour create enough new prison spaces to cope with these projections? There are no easy answers. The existing prison estate, much of it built during the Victorian era, is crumbling. Around a quarter of prisoners are in overcrowded accommodation, with two men locked in a cell designed for one. Many prisoners are confined to their cells for 22 hours a day.

None of the options available will be particularly palatable to a new government. It could argue, for example, that we should be sending fewer people to prison. The last prominent politician to do so was the Conservative home secretary Willie Whitelaw, in 1980, when the prison population stood at 44,000. A Labour-led Home Office could change practice on sentencing. Or it could change the regulations on remission: it was only five years ago that the rules were changed so that those serving longer sentences have to complete at least two-thirds before being considered for release, rather than half. All this would take courage – and Labour would no doubt be accused of being soft on crime. But things cannot go on as they are. And if, as the polls suggest, Labour is handed a large majority on 4 July, it would present a rare opportunity to show the bravery that is needed.  

[See also: Politicians ignore the Mumsnet manifesto at their peril]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation