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10 New Prison Facts From The Winter 2023/4 Bromley Briefing
Prison Reform Trust finds glimmers of hope after a tumultuous year in prisons.

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A chance for change?

Anyone and everyone who wants accurate up-to-date information on what is going on in our prisons relies on the prison factfiles produced by the Prison Reform Trust. Known as the Bromley Briefings, they are issued twice a year. The most recent edition was published yesterday (19 February 2024).

PRT’s newish Chief Exec, Pia Sinha, uses the introduction to this edition to sound a positive note, saying that while prisons have had a “tumultuous” year but there are encouraging signs that the political costs of our addiction to imprisonment may have finally hit home with ministers. She makes a plea for the Government to seize this opportunity to show that the status quo is not working and present a positive alternative vision for our criminal justice system.

 As usual, I have perused the Briefing in depth and found 10 key facts to share in this post. Since readers of the blog are more than averagely well informed about penal affairs, I have tried to feature some of the less well-known issues.

The context

Before I select this edition’s top ten, it seems important to share the key facts about our prison system from the briefing, even though most readers will be more than familiar with the rather depressing findings.

  • Scotland and England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe.
  • The prison population has risen by 75% in the last 30 years and currently stands at 87,982.
  • For more serious, indictable offences, the average prison sentence is now 62.4 months—almost two years longer than in 2010.
  • More than two and a half times as many people were sentenced to 10 years or more in the 12 months to December 2022 than the same period in 2010.
  • More than 44,000 people were sent to prison to serve a sentence in the year to June 2023. The majority had committed a non-violent offence. Almost two in five were sentenced to serve six months or less.

1  Long sentences

An increasing number of people in prison are serving complex and more punitive sentences. 99% of unreleased people in prison serving an IPP sentence have served the minimum custodial period deemed proportionate to their crime, and are held in prison indefinitely on the basis of public protection.

One in 10 of the sentenced prison population (11%) are serving an Extended Determinate Sentence and will not be subject to automatic release until the end of their full custodial term.

2 Recall

Almost 10,000 people serving a sentence of less than 12 months were recalled to prison in the year to June 2023 — over a third (34%) more than last year.

16% of the sentenced prison population is now held in custody on recall—12,068 people. The number is expected to rise by approximately 13% by 2026—to around 13,650 people.

3  Life sentences

7,257 people are currently serving a life sentence who have never been released. One in seven (14%) have a tariff of 10 years or less, almost half (48%) have a tariff of between 10 and 20 years, and over a third (36%) over 20 years. There are an additional 871 people who have been recalled to prison after they were released.

England and Wales holds almost half of all life sentenced prisoners (43%) across the 53 Council of Europe jurisdictions, excluding Türkiye. An outlier, Türkiye holds 10,236 lifers, with England and Wales holding a further 6,693. The other 51 European jurisdictions hold 9,002 lifers between them.

Over a fifth (22%) of people currently in prison on a life sentence have already served their minimum term. In 2021, post-tariff lifers had spent an average of nine years and two months extra in prison.

4  Whole life sentences

There are currently 67 people serving a whole life sentence who are unlikely to ever be released.

5  Remand

People on remand account for more than one in six of the prison population (18%)—nearly 16,200 people. The remand population is currently at its highest level in at least 50 years. 

In September 2022, nearly 4,600 people (32% of the remand population) had been held in prison beyond the six-month custody time limit. One in 20 (5%) had been there for longer than two years—770 people.

6  Deaths in prison

In the last five years more than one in five (21%) self-inflicted deaths occurred in the first 30 days of arrival in prison—almost half (49%) of these deaths were in the first week. Many prisons are failing to learn lessons from self-inflicted deaths. Last year, inspectors found that over half of inspected adult male prisons had weaknesses in suicide prevention measures.

2022 saw the highest ever number of self-inflicted deaths of people serving an IPP sentence. The Prison and Probation Ombudsman has recommended that IPP sentences are treated as a risk factor for suicide and self-harm, due to the anxiety and hopelessness they cause.

7  New prisons

HMP Fosse Way opened in May 2023, and construction of HMP Millsike is underway. Fosse Way joins HMP Five Wells, which opened in 2022. All three prisons are, or will be, Category C resettlement prisons holding nearly 5,000 adult men between them who are either serving short sentences or are within the last two years of a longer sentence.

Fosse Way and Five Wells are among the largest prisons in England and Wales, along with HMP Berwyn which opened in 2017. They can hold around 1,700 prisoners in certified normal accommodation (Berwyn can hold 2,000).

A 2016 study found that prisons holding under 400 prisoners were seven times more likely to receive a ‘good’ rating on safety from prison inspectors compared to larger prisons. They were also five times more likely to receive ‘good’ ratings in respect and purposeful activity.
The other three new prisons originally had planning permission rejected. Intended to be built next to HMPs Gartree, Grendon and Garth respectively, the Ministry of Justice appealed the decisions. Outline permission has been granted for the site next to Gartree, and the Planning Inspectorate approved the construction of a prison next to HMP Grendon in January 2024. A decision is yet to be made for Garth.
The government recently announced an additional £30 million to acquire more land for prison building.

8  Private prisons

There were 18,061 people held in private prisons on 29 December 2023—21% of the prison population. There are 15 private prisons in England and Wales. Fourteen cost a total of £608.3m in 2021–22. The fifteenth prison—HMP Fosse Way—opened this year.

2022 was the first time that prisons have switched from one private provider to another. Of the three prisons whose contracts expired, only one was awarded to the previous provider (HMP/YOI Parc.

9  Women in prison

On 30 September 2023 there were 3,570 women in prison in England and Wales — a 12% increase on last year. Women entered prison on 5,286 occasions in the year to June 2023 — either on remand or to serve a sentence — up 7% on the previous 12 months.

Many women remanded into custody don’t go on to receive a custodial sentence. In 2022, almost three quarters (72%) of women remanded and tried by the magistrates’ court didn’t receive a custodial sentence. In the Crown Court this figure was almost half (48%). In September 2022, more than one in five women held on remand (21%) had been there longer than six months.

10  Working while in prison

On average, 1,088 people per month were working out of prison on licence during 2022–23—a 37% increase on last year. They paid £266 per month on average to the Prisoners’ Earnings Act levy —nearly a fifth of their net earnings (18%). The levy goes toward supporting victims of crime.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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