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Prison spaces only in lower category open establishments

The projected rise to 94,000 is primarily due to an increase in receptions of determinate sentenced offenders.

Andrea Albutt, President of the Prison Governors’ Association, made it clear in her speech to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Penal Affairs (APPGPA) yesterday that our prisons are rapidly running out of space.

As you can see from our graphic below, the prison population has been on an upward surge for some months now. At the end of February 2020, just before the first COVID lockdown, the prison population stood at 83,654. This number fell steadily throughout COVID as courts were closed and crime was down with people restricted to being at home for much of the time. It fell to 77,738 at the end of April 2021 and then very slowly started to grow again, reaching 79,569 one year later. However, over the last year the increase has been rapid, reaching 85,193 people in prison last Friday 19 May, that’s a staggering average increase of 428 people every month over the last year.

Adding to the problems are the fact that our prison estate is already overcrowded; it’s been that way for many years. Indeed, official figures show that the prison system as a whole has been overcrowded in every year since 1994. Almost two in every three prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded (77 of the 120 prisons), with more than 15,900 people held in overcrowded accommodation—more than a fifth of the prison population at the time these most recent figures were released. In practice, overcrowding generally means two people in a small cell designed for one.

Officials certainly don’t expect things to get any better. The latest (February this year) official prison population projection estimates that there will be 94,400 people inside in less than two years’ time (March 2025). This projected rise is primarily due to an increase in receptions of determinate sentenced offenders. This is because courts are expected to dispose of more cases than they receive in order to clear the additional trial backlog that arose during COVID-19 restrictions and the Criminal Bar Association strike action. The other main factor which statisticians think will drive the prison population upwards is the big (20,000) increase in the number of police officers who are expected to arrest and charge more people with inevitable consequences for the numbers of people inside.

The Government is aware of the problem, of course, and formally requested the emergency use of 400 police cells for people on remand back in December last year.

Perfect storm

In her speech to the APPGPA yesterday, Ms Albutt spoke about a perfect storm scenario. Our prions are full and the prison building programme cannot keep pace with the increase in the prison population. She acknowledged, as the Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor reminds us in his inspection reports every week, that many of our prisons are not providing a safe, decent, and rehabilitative environment.

Ms Albutt shared information about a “rigorous” HMPPS project carried out in 2022 to look at the maximum number of prisoners any establishment can hold to maintain safety, decency, order and control. This maximum number is called the operational capacity and when filled, a prison is full. Currently most of our prisons are full with spaces only available in the lower category open prisons, and recent Government policies (the much criticised changes introduced by the last Justice Secretary Dominic Raab) make it much harder for people to meet the criteria to be transferred to these open prisons.

Concluding that “there is no more room at the inn”, Ms Albutt  attributed this dangerous situation to the political rhetoric (increasingly louder from all parties in the run-up to next year’s general election) about being tough on crime. She described the current crisis as having

“created a situation where further overcrowding will turn many of our prisons into little more than warehouses of despair, danger, and degradation, despite the best efforts of Governors and their teams.”

Quite how the Government will tackle this problem, given what seems likely to be continued rapid growth in our prison numbers, is far from clear.

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