As regular readers are well aware, I (and anyone else who wants accurate up-to-date information on what is going on in our prison)s relies on the prison factfiles produced by the Prison Reform Trust. Known as the Bromley Briefings, they are issued twice a year. The 2023 summer edition was published today (30 June, 2023).
As usual, I will pick out 10 interesting facts from the briefing and feature it in a blog post sometime next week. However, this post focuses on the prison capacity crisis which forms the introduction of the latest prison factfile.
Prison Capacity Crisis
The factfile reveals that there are nearly 3,400 more people in prison since the start of the year, and over 5,000 more people behind bars compared to June last year, as the prison population approaches 86,000.
These concerning figures further support the warning issued by Andrea Albutt, President of the Prison Governors’ Association, to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Penal Affairs in May, that the prison system is facing a capacity crisis.
The report highlights that the government’s commitment to building 20,000 new prison places by the mid-2020s remains significantly behind schedule, despite a recent increase in activity. By 5 June 2023, just 5,202 new places had been constructed.
Ministry of Justice officials conceded that even if all planned capacity projects are delivered on time, there will be a shortfall of 2,300 prison places by March 2025, according to an internal memo accidentally published at the start of June.
The challenge is further compounded by the closure of nearly 10,700 prison places since 2010, many of which were outdated and dilapidated following years of underinvestment in maintenance and upkeep.
Around 11,000 new places have been created since 2010, so we have a net increase of just 300 prison spaces.
With government projections that the prison population will rise by a further 7,800 people to reach 93,200 by 2024, the prison service faces an extraordinary challenge simply to keep up with demand—intensifying the strain on existing infrastructure and limiting capacity within the organisation to focus on other pressing priorities, including post-pandemic recovery.
Overuse of imprisonment
The main reason for our continuing overcrowding crisis is the simple fact that we incarcerate a large proportion of our population than any other country in Western Europe, the latest figures show that we imprison 141 out of every 100,000 people, more than twice the proportion in Germany and Norway (see chart below).
We also overuse prison for petty and persistent crime. In 2022, more than 43,000 people were sent to prison to serve a sentence, 61% of whom had committed a non-violent offence. Nearly two out of five (38%) received sentences of six months or less.
Another reason for our high incarceration rates is that we are sending people to prison for longer and longer periods of time. More than three times as many people were sentenced to 10 years or more in 2022 than in 2008. People serving mandatory life sentences for murder are spending more of their sentence in prison. On average they spend 18 years in custody, up from 13 years in 2001.
Judges are also imposing longer minimum terms. The average minimum term imposed for murder rose from 13 years in 2000 to 21 years in 2021.
Another increasingly important contributory factor is our comparatively recent (since 2015) trend of recalling people to prison.
Under changes introduced in 2015, anyone leaving custody who has served two days or more is required to serve a minimum of 12 months under supervision in the community. Since their introduction, the number of people recalled back to custody has increased, particularly amongst women.
8,357 people serving a sentence of less than 12 months were recalled to prison in the year to December 2022.
Call for action
The Prison Reform Trust calls for immediate action with their Chief Executive, Pia Sinha, setting out a list of key measures which could be implemented:
“The government should start by limiting the use of short sentences and reducing a record remand population, as well as increasing the uptake of and entitlement to home detention curfew. In the longer term, it needs to tackle sentence inflation and barriers to progression such as the destructive changes to open conditions transfers introduced by the justice secretary’s predecessor. Furthermore, controversial changes to the parole system contained in the victims and prisoners bill should be scrapped.”
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.