A NEW REPORT published by the Prison Reform Trust reveals the extent of the challenge facing the UK government as it struggles to respond to the demand for prison places fuelled by a rapidly rising prison population in England and Wales.

Figures contained within the report, Prison: the facts reveal 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 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 UK 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The challenge is further compounded by the closure of nearly 10,700 prison places since 2010, many of which were outdated and dilapidated following years of underinvestment in maintenance and upkeep.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, 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.

Ministers have already announced the installation of Rapid Deployment Cells – prefabricated units placed on existing prison sites, which have a lifespan of around 15 years; along with the expansion of overcrowding –’doubling up’  people in cells designed for one – as they grapple with the acute shortage of available spaces.

Last month, following an inspection of HMP Pentonville – one of the oldest Victorian local prisons in the country – the Chief Inspector of Prisons warned prison leaders about the detrimental impact of overcrowding on conditions and the daily prison regime. Pentonville was originally designed to hold 520. Today it holds 1,100 men.

The situation has been exacerbated by a sharp increase in the number of people held on remand. Around 14,600 people – more than one in seven in prison – are currently held on remand. This represents a 45 per cent increase in just three years, and is at near-record levels.

Recent reforms to parole introduced by the former justice secretary Dominic Raab are also preventing people from moving to prisons to work towards their release. The overwhelming majority of Parole Board recommendations for a transfer to less secure open conditions are now being rejected by the government. The latest figures reveal that nearly five in six Parole Board recommendations for transfer are being rejected by officials at the Ministry of Justice, whereas more than nine in 10 were previously approved.

All of this is happening at a time when the prison service is facing an exodus of staff leaving the profession. More than one in seven prison officers left the service last year. Of those nearly half (47 per cent) had been in the role for less than three years, and more than a quarter (25 per cent) left after less than a year.

Commenting, Pia Sinha Chief Executive of the Prison Reform Trust said: “The new justice secretary has inherited a perfect storm from his predecessor – a surge of prisoners and nowhere to put them.

“Whilst it is understandable that ministers and senior leaders will be looking for every conceivable space to hold people, severely overcrowded prisons will do nothing to improve the lives of those held in them – indeed they are likely to make things worse.

“Purpose, pride and having a clear plan to work towards your release from prison are the inevitable casualties when people are locked up all day with nothing to do. These conditions breed despair, hopelessness, poor mental health and fuel the demand for drugs. Rapid cell building may offer some temporary relief, but reducing demand for prison places requires a similar level of urgency.

“The [UK] 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.”

* Read: Prison: the facts here.

* Source: Prison Reform Trust