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Prisoner population and overcrowding

What is the outlook for the prison population and what is driving the changes? What are the implications of the rising prison population, and what is being proposed – from new prisons to community sentences – to deal with it? Are we beyond a "necessary and sustainable" prison population (especially given crime is falling), and what factors determine this?

Explaining the trends

The prison population has long been on an upward trend (Chart 1) and rose sharply, from around 85,000 to 88,000, at the end of 2011 due to the remanding and sentencing of people alleged to have been involved in the riots in England in August 2011.

Chart 1: Prison population, England and Wales

Prison population, England and Wales, Jun-85 to Dec-14 and projections to Jun-20 (annual intervals to Jun-10; monthly intervals thereafter), thousands.

Chart showing prison population in England and Wales between June 1985 and December 2014 and projections to June 2020.  Data is in annual intervals to June 2010 and monthly intervals after this date.

Chart 2: Prison population as a proportion of accommodation

As of February 2015, 71 prisons (60% of the estate) were overcrowded prison population as a proportion of certified normal accommodation, England and Wales, February 2015 (each dot represents an individual establishment).

Chart showing the prison population as a proportion of certified normal accomodation in England and Wales in February 2015.

Debate continues about what has driven the long-term rise in the prison population, which largely predates the 2011 riots. The Ministry of Justice has attributed the rise to a change in the case mix, including more sex offenders being sentenced to custody.

Some argue that increased crime levels in the 1980s and high profile cases, such as James Bulger's murder in 1993, fuelled political competition over sentencing.

In 1993, Tony Blair promised the Labour party conference that he would be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime", while Michael Howard told the Conservative party conference in the same year that "prison works".

Certainly, by historical standards, there has been a large amount of criminal justice legislation since 1994. Some also suggest that the criminal justice system – in the parole process, for example – has become more risk-averse.

Another factor underlying the growth in the prison population has been the increase in the number of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences for public protection, which government predictions had underestimated.

Previous policy

The Labour Government undertook various initiatives to expand the capacity of the prison estate, to ensure it kept pace with the rising prison population.

Its two major prison building programmes were the Core Capacity Programme, which was to provide 12,500 places by 2012, and the New Prisons Programme, which was to provide a further 7,500 places alongside the closure of 5,500 inefficient places.

Originally, three "Titan" prisons were to provide those 7,500 places. This proposal, however, attracted a great deal of criticism. It was suggested that Titan prisons would be difficult to manage, would not help to tackle reoffending, and would not address the more fundamental problem of the UK's over-reliance on imprisonment.

The plan for Titan prisons was subsequently abandoned.

In its Breaking the cycle proposals, the previous Government set out what it described as an intelligent sentencing framework that, with more effective rehabilitation, would break the cycle of crime.

In its Transforming Rehabilitation proposals, it promised a revolution in the management of offenders that would both drive down reoffending and offer better value for the taxpayer.

In particular, more would be done to supervise and rehabilitate prisoners serving less than twelve months and management of all but the most dangerous offenders would be passed to community rehabilitation companies in the private and voluntary sector, who would be paid (in part) according to results.

More prisons, bigger prisons or less imprisonment?

For some, the key issue is how to keep pace effectively with the rising population: overcrowding can make rehabilitation more difficult as prisoners have reduced access to purposeful activity and are moved around more frequently.

Others see the fundamental problem as over-reliance on imprisonment, drawing resources away from preventive and rehabilitative work.

The previous Government announced its intention to build a 2,000-place prison in Wrexham and to replace the Feltham young offender institution with a large new adult prison and adjoining youth facility.

This revived concerns the 'average' prison is becoming bigger, as smaller, older prisons close, to be replaced by larger ones. Some argue that larger prisons function less well and are less likely to help prisoners to quit offending as they are held farther from their homes.

Others argue that they are the most cost-effective option and that a prison's size does not, in itself, determine its decency, safety or effectiveness.

Several substantial reports have recently examined these issues: for example, work by the Justice Committee on the Transforming Rehabilitation programme and prison planning and policies, the Public Accounts Committee, the Welsh Affairs Committee, the National Audit Office, the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences and Policy Exchange.

  • Should we have smaller local prisons, which may work better by rehabilitating offenders closer to home, or larger prisons providing economies of scale?
  • Will the changes to the management and delivery of probation supervision deliver the hoped-for improvements? What are the risks (both of the changes and not making the changes)?
  • How can we make justice more responsive locally?
  • Could restorative justice reduce the need for imprisonment?

Party Lines

  • Conservatives: close old prisons and replace them with larger, modern and fit-for-purpose ones and expanding payment-by-results
  • Greens: operate a smaller prison system
  • Labour: (…) increase the amount of time prisoners spend working and learning and measure the success of prisons by how successful they are in reforming prisoners and reducing re-offending
  • Liberal Democrats: (…) reduce the prison population by using more effective alternative punishments and correcting offending behaviour
  • UKIP: (…) free up prison space by removing foreign criminals

Current Briefing Papers

The Key Issues articles were published in May 2015. However, the Commons Library producesnew briefings as topics evolve.

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Copyright: iStockphoto