Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 44 of Session 2005-06, dated 6 June 2006


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today:

"Overcrowding in prisons undermines many of the objectives of custody. It exacerbates tension between staff and prisoners, disrupts educational and training programmes, damages the delivery of welfare services to prisoners and, where overcrowding is at its most acute, may lead to higher suicide rates. It also provides a fertile environment for prisoner unrest.

"Prisoner numbers are now at an unprecedentedly high level, at 77,000 - and are set to rise even higher. The Prison Service cannot be blamed for not being able to predict future prisoner numbers accurately. But it must not be caught flat-footed, as it was in 2002, when there was a sudden surge in demand for prison places.

"The Home Office's National Offender Management Service should learn the lessons of 2002. It needs to have in place now detailed contingency plans for working with reliable and competent contractors to build at short notice cost-effective and secure temporary accommodation which has been properly pilot tested.

"Another way of relieving the pressure is to think long and hard about practical alternatives to imprisonment for some key categories of prisoner: such as those on remand, those with mental health problems and children.

"Around 13 per cent of all prisoners are foreign nationals. It was an astonishing error by Home Office officials that 1,019 were released without any thought being given to whether they should be deported from the UK. It is now of the highest importance that the Home Office knows exactly what foreign criminals it has under lock and key and what scope there is for deporting them - either during or at the end of their sentences."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 44th Report of this Session, which examined the challenge of accommodating record numbers of prisoners, actions taken to do so and the impact on education and other training for prisoners.

The National Offender Management Service (the Service) is responsible for, among other things, accommodating and caring for prisoners. It was formed to bring together the work of the Prison Service and the Probation Service to create seamless offender management from arrest through to resettlement.

The prison population has been increasing since the early 1990s and on 1 November 2005, prisons in England and Wales held their highest ever recorded population of 77,800. In 1994, the prison population exceeded the certified normal accommodation (the designed capacity of the prison estate) resulting in overcrowding and the prison population has remained above this level for over ten years. The Service uses mathematical modelling to predict future population size, but many factors influencing population size, such as the sentencing practices of the courts, are out of the Service's control, limiting the Service's ability to produce reliable predictions.

An exceptionally large unpredicted rise in prisoner numbers in 2002 resulted in the Prison Service having to accommodate additional prisoners at short notice, initially through the use of police cells and subsequently by constructing temporary units in the grounds of existing prisons. Two new prisons were also commissioned to provide accommodation in the longer term.

The Service commissioned two types of temporary accommodation: modular temporary units, (portakabins), and brick clad steel framed units. Modular units were expected to last for five years and brick clad units for 40 years. The modular units cost £27,000 per prisoner place to build and the brick clad units £63,000 per place. The difference in expected useful life, however, means that modular units cost around three times as much per prisoner place per year as the brick clad units (£5,300 compared to £1,600). Modular units also took an average of 134 days to construct compared to an expected 49 days, and compared to 183 days for the brick clad units.

Reacting to the urgency of the situation, the Prison Service let contracts to construct temporary units on the basis of a generic design before it had decided where the units would be built and before it had project managers in place. It also let contracts for site preparation work to two contractors who had insufficient experience to deliver such work. The modular temporary units had not been tested or used for prison accommodation before, and the security requirements necessary to allow contractors to work inside prisons, and to enter and exit the prison each day, led to additional delays in the construction of the units as security vetting was not carried out centrally but by each prison governor.

Overcrowding can impact on the Prison Service's ability to deliver welfare services such as appropriate mental health care, and suicides are often higher in the most overcrowded prisons. It can also disrupt the education and training prisoners receive, because prisoners are moved between prisons to free up places for prisoner intakes from courts. The disruption is compounded as full prisoner records, including information about education, are often not transferred with the prisoner.

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