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Where next for our overcrowded prisons?
The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology examines the prison population growth, its policy implications and the impact on people in prison.

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Prison population growth

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) has just — 3 January 2024 — published a very useful (not to say timely) briefing entitled “Prison population growth: drivers, implications and policy considerations” which looks at both the impact of the surging number of people inside both for “logistics and processes” and for people in prison themselves. 

Just a note about POST (whom I confess to being ignorant about until I came across this briefing) — it is an office of both Houses of Parliament which produces impartial briefings designed to make scientific information and research accessible to the UK Parliament (and indeed the general public).


POST sets out the current crisis in admirably straightforward terms: “England and Wales have the highest per capita prison population in Western Europe. In October 2023, over 88,000 people were imprisoned, in an estate with a maximum capacity of 88,890. This was the highest number recorded. 94% of people in prison are adult men and the adult male prison estate is almost full. The prison estate is operating at 99% of its usable operational capacity and over 60% of prisons are overcrowded…. Nearing capacity can have negative implications for the safe operation of prisons, and for the health, wellbeing and rehabilitation of people in prison.”

Drivers of growth

The number of people given immediate custodial sentences fell from 98,044 in 2012, to 67,812 in 2022, making it clear that the prison population increase is not driven by more convictions. However, over the same period average sentence length increased from 14.5 to 21.4 months. The useful chart I have reproduced below (created by the Prison Reform Trust) shows the scale of the increases for specific offences:

Other factors

However, it is not just sentence length which has driven the increase in the number of people in prison. As regular readers will know, there is a long list of other factors which include:

  • The increase in both minimum and maximum terms for a wide range of offences. 56% of prisoners were serving determinate prison sentences of over 4 years in 2023, compared with 36% in 2008.
  • In September 2023, the number of people on remand was 16,196. This was the highest on record and a 12% increase from September 2022.
  • In September 2023, the recall prison population passed 12,000, the highest on record.
  • The recruitment of 20,000 new police officers is also likely to result in more charges, convictions & the need for more prison places.

Short term measures

The POST briefing lists a range of short term measures, some of them already activated by the Government, others under consideration:

  • Raising judicial awareness of prison conditions
  • (18 days) Early release on licence
  • Extending eligibility for HDC
  • Presumption against short custodial sentences
  • Reducing the remand population
  • Reducing recalls
  • Reducing IPP licence length
  • Extending early removal scheme for Foreign National Prisoners
  • Renting prison space abroad (!)

Longer term policy considerations

The briefing examines three main long term considerations:

  1. The Government is working to expand existing prisons and build more prisons, with one under construction, three in the planning phase, and £30 million committed to acquiring land for new prison sites in 2024.63
    Capacity pressures may delay the closure of older accommodation. For example, the lease at HMP Dartmoor has been extended, despite a previous announcement that it would close.
  2. Non-custodial alternatives to prison have been proposed by many but the difficulty of implementing this in practice can be seen by the fact that the use of community orders halved between 2009 and 2019.
  3. The influence of public opinion — polls between 1987 and 2022 consistently find that around 70-75% of the public feel sentences are ‘too lenient’, despite substantial increases in average sentence lengths in this time.

A whole systems approach

The briefing reports that stakeholders agree that long-term planning and cross-party consensus about the future of prisons would be beneficial. Policing, courts, prisons and probation are interconnected, so stakeholders also recommend more coordinated policymaking, to ensure that knock-on effects are identified and planned for, with timely investment upstream.

The Lord Chancellor has committed to an annual statement on prison capacity to facilitate a longer-term approach, and announced that changes to rape sentences will not commence until there is sufficient capacity in the system.

POST also reports that tackling wider structural inequalities and biases at all stages of the criminal justice system may help to reduce over-representation in the prison population.


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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