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The Summer 2021 Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefing warns that the projected 25% increase in prison numbers will undermine post-pandemic prison recovery.

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Prison: The Facts

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 Summer 2021 issue is published today (5 July 2021). 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.

1: The prison population is projected to rise again

The prison population has risen by 74% in the last 30 years—and it is currently projected to rise by a further 20,000 people by 2026.

2: We overuse prison for petty & persistent crime

40,000 people were sent to prison in 2020; 63% had committed a non-violent offence and 44% were sentenced to serve six months or less.

3: We are sending people to prison for longer

For more serious, indictable offences, the average prison sentence is now 54.3 months—almost two years longer than in 2008. People serving mandatory life sentences are spending more of their sentence in prison. On average they spend 17 years in custody, up from 13 years in 2001. This is set to rapidly increase as judges are imposing substantially longer tariff periods. The average minimum term imposed for murder rose from 12.5 years in 2003 to 20 years in 2020.

4: We are recalling more women to prison

The number of people recalled back to custody has increased, particularly amongst women. 8,055 people serving a sentence of less than 12 months were recalled to prison in the year to December 2020.

5: Racial disparity

The number of Asian and mixed ethnicity prisoners has risen sharply since 2004. Black men in particularly are more likely to be arrested, plead not guilty and be sent to prison by the Crown Court than their white counterparts.

6: Older prisoners

With prison sentences getting longer, more people are growing old behind bars. People aged 60 and over are the fastest growing age group in the prison estate. There are now almost triple the number there were 16 years ago. More than one in six people (17%) in prison are aged 50 or over—13,038 people. Of these, 3,281 are in their 60s and a further 1,638 people are 70 or older. The prison population is projected to grow by a quarter in the next five years. The government anticipates the older population to increase at a similar rate to the population as a whole. 44% of men in prison aged over 50 have been convicted of sex offences. The next highest offence category is violence against the person (25%) followed by drug offences (8%). 315 people in prison were aged 80 or over as of 30 September 2020.

7: Life and indeterminate sentences

Many people in prison don’t know if, or when, they might be released. 10,676 people are currently in prison serving an indeterminate sentence—16% of the sentenced prison population, up from 9% in 1993. 8,738 people are currently in prison serving an indeterminate sentence who have yet to be released.

6,954 people are serving a life sentence and a further 1,784 people are serving sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP). Despite its abolition in 2012, almost all (96%) people still in prison serving an IPP sentence have
passed their tariff expiry date—the minimum period they must spend in custody and considered necessary to serve as punishment for the offence.

8: Women in prison

Many women remanded into custody don’t go on to receive a custodial sentence—in 2019, 33% of women remanded by the magistrates’ court and 40% by the Crown Court didn’t receive a custodial sentence. Most women (72%) in 2020 who entered prison under sentence committed a non-violent offence. More women were sent to prison to serve a sentence for theft than for violence against the person, robbery, sexual offences, drugs, and motoring offences combined. The proportion of women serving very short prison sentences has risen sharply. In 1993 only a third of custodial sentences given to women were for less than six months—in 2020 it is more than half (58%).

9: Children in custody

The number of children (under-18s) in custody has fallen by 83% since its peak in 2008. They are also committing fewer crimes—with proven offences down by 82% over the same period. At the end of March 2021 there were 515 children in custody—19 children were aged 14 or younger.

Almost three in 10 (29%) children in custody in 2019–20 were there for non-violent crimes. More than three in 10 (31%) children in custody are on remand. A disproportionate number of children in custody come from a care background. Fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care, but around two-fifths of children in secure training centres (44%) and more than half in young offender institutions (54%) have been in care.

10: Mental health

Seven in 10 women in prison (71%) reported that they had mental health issues compared with just under half of men (47%). A study of 469 male and female prisoners found that 42% of participants had been previously diagnosed with a mental illness. Some of the most common diagnoses include personality disorders (27%), anxiety disorders (27%), PTSD (20%), psychotic disorders (10%) and autism (4%).

Although almost half (49%) of study participants reported having previous contact with mental health services either in prison or the community, only around a quarter of the sample reported current contact with prison mental health services.


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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