Overcrowding and high reoffending rates are a fact of life in today’s prison system according to an analysis of recent prison population statistics by the Prison Reform Trust. Despite opening two new prisons this year with a capacity of 2,500 places, 59 per cent of prisons in England and Wales are operating at an overcrowded level.
Although the growth in the prison population has slowed down in recent months, prompting plans to close HMP Wellingborough, there are still 7,294 more people in the prison system than it is designed and built to hold. On 31 July 2012, there were 77 out of 131 establishments over the Prison Service’s Certified Normal Accommodation defined as “the good, decent standard of accommodation that the Service aspires to provide all prisoners”.
The most overcrowded prison in England and Wales, according to official figures, is HMP Kennet. Designed to hold 175 men, it now holds 337. In second place is Shrewsbury (built to hold 170 men and holding 326) and in third is Swansea (built for 240 and holding 435).
For people in prison themselves, overcrowding has a tangible impact. Nearly a quarter of people in prison are being held in overcrowded accommodation, either doubling up in cells designed for one occupant or being held three to a cell in cells designed for two people. Private prisons have held a higher percentage of their prisoners in overcrowded accommodation than public sector prisons every year for the 13 years to 2010/11.
Overcrowding makes it much harder for staff to work intensively with offenders on resettlement, says the Prison Reform Trust. Currently 47 per cent of adults reoffend within a year of leaving prison, rising to almost 57 per cent for those who had served a sentence of less than 12 months. Nearly 70 per cent of children aged 10 to 17 released from custody reoffend within a year.
The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) itself has recently acknowledged that “imprisonment in and of itself does not reduce reoffending. If anything it slightly raises reconviction rates after release”. The NOMS consultation document goes on to state that “to reduce reoffending, as well as mitigating the negative effects of imprisonment […] prisons need to focus on four essential factors”, the first being the “provision of a legal, safe, decent and rehabilitative regime supported by appropriate staff behaviours.”
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: “Building our way out of the overcrowding problem is not the answer. The prison population can be safely reduced by curbing inflation in sentencing, calling a halt to any unnecessary use of custodial remand and investing in effective community penalties.
"Court ordered community sentences are more effective, by eight percentage points, at reducing one-year proven reoffending rates than custodial sentences of less than 12 months for similar offences. Rather than falling back on short, ineffective spells behind bars, investment in more intensive community sentences and public health solutions would cut crime and save the taxpayer money."